The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place by governments to protect their people have the potential to restrict the production, certification and international trade of seed with serious consequences for farmers and the global food chain. Although most spring and autumn seed had already arrived in its final country of destination before travel restrictions were put in place, it is uncertain whether seed required for the next growing season(s) will arrive on time. The classification of the agriculture sector as “essential” in all countries, is important in order for the continued production and movement of seed, and avoiding changes to regulatory frameworks is critical at a time when relevant authorities are short staffed and under pressure

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Key messages
  • Availability and cost of transport due to the reduced number of commercial flights, fewer personnel available for production, transportation and documentation processes, and a contraction in the market for plants and seeds, particularly ornamentals, due to the closure of garden centres and florists and the loss of contracts with key retailers is creating specific problems for the seed sector.

  • Although most spring and autumn seed had already arrived in its final country of destination before travel restrictions were put in place, it is uncertain whether seed that is currently being produced for sowing in the next growing season(s) will arrive in time. This means that the true impact of COVID-19 on the seed sector will only likely be felt by farmers and consumers in the mid to long term.

  • The classification of the agriculture sector as “essential” is important in order for the continued movement of seed and for employees to carry on their work.

  • Avoiding changes to the regulatory framework and technical barriers to trade is important at a time when relevant authorities are short staffed and under pressure. While temporary derogation of rules may be necessary at a later stage, National Designated Authorities are currently allowing for flexible implementation of the OECD Rules and Regulations.

  • Communication, collaboration and harmonisation of measures among the relevant national authorities and border controls is critical.

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What is the issue and why does it matter?

As a key agricultural input, seeds play a fundamental role in our food systems, ensuring food security and nutrition and supporting the livelihoods of farmers and other stakeholders. The seed industry is truly globalised: a seed lot can be expected to travel through several countries for multiplication, production, processing, and packaging before it reaches a farmer. It is also time sensitive, with defined periods for sowing and harvesting different crops. As such, the necessary restrictions on movement and transport put in place by governments to protect their people from COVID-19 have the potential to seriously affect the production, certification, distribution and cost of seed. This presents a problem for all countries but is likely to have a greater impact in developing countries, which may be particularly hard hit by the economic down-turn and relatively more reliant on agriculture.

March, April and May are critical months for the sowing of spring crops (maize, sunflower, soybean, canola, spring wheat and barley, open field vegetables etc.) in the northern hemisphere and autumn crops in the southern hemisphere, but in reality seed production takes place all year round (Figure 1). Although most spring and autumn seed had already arrived in its final country of destination before travel restrictions were put in place, it is uncertain whether seed that is currently being produced for sowing in the next growing season(s) will arrive in time. The increased cost of transport, due to the reduced availability of flights, as well as delays at borders due to stricter safety measures and fewer personnel, may hamper seed supply chains and on-time delivery of seed. Depending on how long the pandemic and associated confinement measures continue, the seed sector and its associated supply chains could feel the impact of COVID-19 long in to the future.

In such uncertain times, we cannot afford this risk. T participating countries of the OECD Seed Schemes have been working together with the Secretariat to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the seed sector and to develop solutions that ensure high quality seed production and international trade continues uninhibited.

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Figure 1. All year round sowing and harvesting for wheat illustrates the need to maintain international trade of agricultural inputs
Figure 1. All year round sowing and harvesting for wheat illustrates the need to maintain international trade of agricultural inputs

Source: Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).

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The OECD Seed Schemes have been certifying the varietal identity and purity of seed lots since the 1960s. The Schemes facilitate the movement of high quality agricultural seeds across borders by harmonising certification standards and procedures. In 2020, 61 countries (both developed and developing) participate in the OECD Seed Schemes.

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Albania

Argentina

Australia

Austria

Belgium

Bolivia

Brazil

Bulgaria

Canada

Chile

Croatia

Cyprus

Czech Republic

Denmark

Egypt

Estonia

Finland

France

Germany

Greece

Hungary

Iceland

India

Iran

Ireland

Israel

Italy

Japan

Kenya

Kyrgyzstan

Latvia

Lithuania

Luxembourg

Mexico

Moldova

Morocco

Netherlands

New Zealand

Norway

Poland

Portugal

Romania

Russian Federation

Senegal

Serbia

Slovakia

Slovenia

South Africa

Spain

Sweden

Switzerland

Tanzania

Tunisia

Turkey

Uganda

Ukraine

United Kingdom

United States

Uruguay

Zambia

Zimbabwe

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How are these disruptions being manifested across the food system?

Impacts on agricultural production and incomes

Limits on the mobility of people across borders and lockdowns are contributing to labour shortages for agricultural sectors in many countries, particularly those characterised by periods of peak seasonal labour demand or labour-intensive production. For example, newly implemented travel bans within the European Union, as well as the closure of the Schengen Area, have significantly reduced the available workforce for the agricultural sectors in a number of European countries. Harvesting season is imminent for many products in the northern hemisphere, and a shortage of labour could lead to production losses and shortages in the market. In many countries, this comes on top of existing difficulties in sourcing seasonal labour.

  • Respect rules and regulations but adapt: Different countries are feeling the impact of COVID-19 in different ways depending on the crop and season (planting or harvesting). Many countries have classified agriculture as an “essential” industry and, as such, certification staff and companies are allowed to continue operating, while obeying social distancing rules. This means staff rotates to limit the number of people in offices and laboratories and wearing special protective equipment when carrying out field inspections, or delegating authority to private sector staff. In cases where company staff are given exceptional authority to carry out certain certification activities, their authority is limited and a notification must appear on the seed lot label.

  • Communicate and harmonise: The OECD is working alongside its member countries and other international organizations to support the seed sector in adjusting to these new health requirements. Communication helps share best practices and the harmonisation of measures between countries smooths processes. Regional bodies such as MERCOSUR and the EU are helping to develop co-ordinated strategies that facilitate trade. Even those countries that do not have a strong seed production sector acknowledge the important role that other seed producing countries play and are supportive of flexible solutions within the current regulatory framework or temporary derogation of Rules and Regulations to facilitate international seed trade.

  • Stay informed and prepared: As the situation is constantly changing, it is important that policy makers and regulators are regularly receiving accurate, reliable and up to date information. A number of National Designated Authorities (NDAs) are holding weekly up-date meetings and are in regular contact with industry, either directly or through associations such as the International Seed Federation (ISF) and World Farmers Organisation (WFO).

Continuous assessment will also help anticipate the potential medium and long-term impacts of the crisis. Contingency strategies to enable rapid response in this highly uncertain environment are more important than ever.

Disclaimer

This paper is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and the arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

Note by Turkey
The information in this document with reference to “Cyprus” relates to the southern part of the Island. There is no single authority representing both Turkish and Greek Cypriot people on the Island. Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Until a lasting and equitable solution is found within the context of the United Nations, Turkey shall preserve its position concerning the “Cyprus issue”.

Note by all the European Union Member States of the OECD and the European Union
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