Regulatory Flexibilities Bridge Gaps Between Seed Systems

Women stand in field.
Photo credit: Georgina Goodwin, CRS

This post is written by Katrin Kuhlman and Bhramar Dey.

Seed laws, regulations, and policies play a central role in food security and farmers’ access to quality seed of a range of crops. They define the institutional framework of the seed sector and enforcement of the rules, and they impact who produces, markets, and sells seeds — of what varieties and under what conditions.

Feed the Future Global Supporting Seed Systems for Development (S34D) activity, funded through Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), supported the current study to address a gap in the literature regarding the role of law and regulation in enabling farmers to access quality seed within both the informal and formal seed sectors. Using expert consultations and desk reviews, we have tried to learn from global case studies where, within existing legal and regulatory frameworks, national governments and partners have been able to bridge formal and informal seed systems — resulting in expanded choice of crops and varieties for smallholder farmers in last-mile markets.

The study presents a framework that evaluates how regulatory flexibility can be built into seed systems to engage farmers of all sizes. We focused on two dimensions:

  1. Extending market frontiers (who can sell what seed, which crop-varieties, where), and
  2. Liberalizing seed quality control mechanisms (ranging from formal seed certification to quality declared seed (QDS) and self-certification).

Extending market frontiers directly impacts whether farmers can access seed of the right quality and variety at the right price to increase on-farm productivity, while seed quality control mechanisms affect the quality of seed available in the market. We find that flexible regulatory approaches and practices can build bridges between formal and informal seed systems; guarantee quality seed in the market; and encourage market entry for high-quality traditional and farmer-preferred varieties.


The study’s framework is based on a methodology developed by the New Markets Lab to assess the design and implementation of policy, legal, and regulatory systems from the perspective of broad-based development goals. We adapted this methodology to farmers’ needs and abilities, drawing upon recent work on informal seed systems by experts we consulted, to show how flexible regulatory approaches can respond to markets and farmers’ preferences. Figure 1 (below) depicts the regulatory elements in the seed value chain, which we evaluated in the context of farmers’ abilities to select, breed, and register varieties; to acquire the seeds of their choice; to save, exchange, and use farm-saved seed; to establish farmers’ enterprises and groups; and to sell and commercialize varieties. 

Figure 1:  Regulatory Elements and Link Between Informal and Formal Seed Systems

Regulatory Elements and Link Between Informal and Formal Seed Systems 

Source: © 2020 Kuhlmann and Dey (forthcoming).Adapted from New Markets Lab, “Legal Guide to Strengthen Tanzania’s Seed and Input Markets” (April 2016); and “Farmers’ Abilities” adapted from Visser, Bert, A Summary of the Impact of National Seed Legislation on the Functioning of Small-Scale Farmers’ Seed Systems in Peru, Vietnam and Zimbabwe,March 2016.

Key Findings:

  • There is not a “one size fits all model” for seed regulation, and, in some cases, variations in regulatory systems highlight important pathways for improving access, availability, and affordability of quality seed. National and local governments can adapt policy and regulatory options to local priorities and agroecologies, thus improving biodiversity and strengthening public-private partnerships in the process. As confirmed by the expert consultations conducted and case studies reviewed, regulatory flexibility can be built into even more formal, structured seed systems, creating space to expand the market frontier of a wider range of crop-variety combinations and bridging gaps between formal and informal seed systems.
  • Within the market, regulatory “gateways” appear at different stages of the seed value chain that affect farmers’ ability to participate in different activities. A regulatory gateway can take the form of a regulatory requirement to participate in the market (such as registration as a seed producer), link between one regulatory process and another (seed must be registered and certified in order to be sold), or condition on market engagement (for example, the need to have a business address or meet a revenue threshold). While these gateways can present obstacles for informal actors, they are also some of the most useful intervention points for both policymakers and practitioners to bring about change in the regulatory and seed policy space.
  • Producers of some types of seed are better able to navigate formal seed systems (such as hybrid seed producers), while others may struggle within these systems. Regardless of the regulatory approach a government chooses, revealed demand (or market pull) is a necessary condition for improved access and availability of seed, and application of legal and regulatory flexibilities will work best when the market demand for a variety exists.

Study Dimension: Extending Market Frontiers

Although seed regulations vary across countries, they often dictate who can legally produce and sell seed for specific markets, an aspect we refer to as “market frontiers.” In many markets, seed must be certified by the government and can be sold by registered seed dealers at registered points of sale, such as a business premise/agro-dealer shop. However, in more remote areas, last-mile informal shops and kiosks are important points of sale in the informal seed sector. Figure 2 depicts the regulatory considerations involved in expanding market frontiers within both the formal and informal seed sectors. In particular, we assessed flexibility in the rules and guidelines governing registration of seed actors and venues, seed variety registration and release, and plant variety protection (PVP) and plant breeders’ rights (PBR).

Figure 2:  Regulatory Elements of Extending Market Frontiers

Regulatory Elements of Extending Market Frontiers 

Source: © 2020 Kuhlmann and Dey (forthcoming). Adapted from New Markets Lab, “Legal Guide to Strengthen Tanzania’s Seed and Input Markets” (April 2016); and “Farmers’ Abilities” adapted from Visser, Bert, A Summary of the Impact of National Seed Legislation on the Functioning of Small-Scale Farmers’ Seed Systems in Peru, Vietnam and Zimbabwe,March 2016.

Our findings focused on increasing regulatory flexibilities and reducing the number of regulatory gateways for informal seed actors in order to expand market frontiers and enable farmers to buy and sell the type of seed they want at the last mile. Specifically, we found that:

  • Adopting flexible approaches for the registration of seed actors and seed varieties can allow for the inclusion of informal seed actors––and local or traditional seed varieties — in the market.
  • Regulatory options for the registration of actors exist, which range from registration requirements that explicitly differentiate between informal and formal actors (India’s system draws this distinction, for example) to more flexible approaches to registration with exemptions for small farmers selling certain types of seed (examples include Peru, Brazil, Myanmar, Tanzania, and Vietnam).
  • Some countries also maintain flexible approaches to variety registration and release, including registration of farmers’ varieties, as illustrated by the cases of Peru, Brazil, Benin, and other countries. These can include differentiated variety registration procedures with reduced testing requirements and/or the adoption of different seed catalogues or variety lists. For plant variety protection, some countries emphasize farmers’ rights and may even allow protection for traditional varieties, as illustrated by the systems of India and Peru.
  • Informal actors can also be integrated into the system through legal recognition of community and farmers’ associations and seed clubs, such as the seed clubs that have driven inclusive seed system development in Vietnam. As the Vietnam case study also highlights, sub-national government can play a critical role, particularly when some autonomy exists vis-à-vis the national government.

Study Dimension: Liberalizing Seed Quality Control Mechanisms

While maintaining seed quality is a shared concern across seed systems, regulatory flexibilities do exist, including systems that blend formal seed certification with more flexible models (including QDS, self-certification, and truth-in-labeling approaches) and those in which the certification process has been fully or partly privatized (including authorization of private seed inspectors). The regulatory elements outlined in Figure 3depict options involved in liberalizing seed quality control mechanisms benchmarked against farmers’ abilities to acquire and sell seeds.   

Figure 3:  Liberalizing Seed Quality Control Mechanisms

Liberalizing Seed Quality Control Mechanisms 

Source: © 2020 Kuhlmann and Dey (forthcoming).Adapted from New Markets Lab, “Legal Guide to Strengthen Tanzania’s Seed and Input Markets” (April 2016); and “Farmers’ Abilities” adapted from Visser, Bert, A Summary of the Impact of National Seed Legislation on the Functioning of Small-Scale Farmers’ Seed Systems in Peru, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, March 2016.

To maintain quality of seed in the market while increasing regulatory flexibilities and reducing the number of regulatory gateways for informal seed actors, the study found that:

  • Formal seed certification processes are often viewed as cumbersome, costly, and inefficient in markets with large informal sectors and production of farmers’ landrace or traditional varieties. Alternative mechanisms for quality assurance exist and can be better adapted to farmers’ varieties, including QDS, truth-in-labeling, and certification of private inspectors, along with certification through seed associations, cooperatives, or community seed associations (the Vietnam case study highlights this point, as does the case of Zaka Super Seeds in Zimbabwe). 
  • Alternative regulatory mechanisms can also overcome challenges associated with formal seed certification systems, including the need for an advanced regulatory system and supporting infrastructure, capacity of the public sector, and implementation gaps, among others. For example, while the benefits of QDS are still being assessed, Uganda’s use of QDS shows that it can coexist alongside a formal certification system, reducing farmers’ costs and increasing revenues.
  • Public accreditation of private seed inspectors has also been introduced in several countries (e.g. Peru, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya) in order to increase certification capacity and significantly reduce public expenses. This is a promising model, although implementation challenges are still being reported in some systems. Truth-in-Labeling, a quality assurance method that relies on the private sector, could be applied to a wider range of varieties if appropriate quality systems are established, including at the community level.
  • The effectiveness of alternative mechanisms for seed quality control will rely upon capacity and resources in order to ensure effective enforcement, as well as the participation and engagement of multiple actors in seed systems, including farmers, associations, cooperatives, and the public sector.

Concluding Remarks

The current study highlighted promising trends and interesting variations in regulatory approaches. While we saw several examples of flexibility in regulatory design, we found sparse evidence on implementation, which is largely anecdotalat this stage. Going forward, we hope the study can foster South-South learning to gather additional information on best practices and implementation approaches. Similarly, as a community, we need to monitor, evaluate, and learn from the usefulness and impact of flexible regulatory approaches that establish a stronger connection between informal and formal seed systems.  


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