Registration systems for farmers’ varieties: Ongoing policy dialogues and experiences from the field


by Isabel López Noriega (Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT), Bram De Jonge (Oxfam), Paola De Santis (Alliance), and Gloria Otieno (Alliance) | May 6, 2020

Khati señorita, Sak’ampaya, Chilltu and Wila Surimana are the names of four potato varieties developed by farmers in the Bolivian altiplano over successive generations of seed selection, exchange, and replanting. Bolivian farmers continue to cultivate and eat these and many other varieties developed and passed down by their ancestors, and further selected and improved by themselves. In addition to their bright colors and unique shapes, these varieties have attractive characteristics for farmers and consumers, such as adaptability to the harsh environmental conditions of the altiplano and unusually high iron and zinc contents.

Over the course of the last few decades, there has been a growing appreciation of farmers’ varieties. In the field, their genetic heterogeneity lowers the risk of overall crop failure thus contributing to production system resilience. Because they increase production stability and resilience, farmers’ varieties sometimes outperform varieties coming from formal breeding programs, especially when cultivated in difficult environments and in systems where farmers cannot afford other inputs such as agrochemicals. In addition, farmers’ varieties are considered reservoirs of genetic diversity, to which plant researchers can go when they need to increase the genetic base of varieties and introduce valuable traits and characteristics in them.

Despite their current and potential value, farmers’ varieties are usually not sold in the open market and tend to be limited to farmers’ informal networks. Why is this? Why haven’t farmers’ varieties found a place in national and global seed markets?

Market access roadblocks

National seed regulations in many countries specify conditions that plant varieties must satisfy before they can be included in national variety lists and registers. Only registered varieties’ seeds can be sold in the open market. The objective of these laws is to ensure that seeds sold to farmers are of high quality and perform in predictable ways. The origin of the regulations can be found in Europe in the XIX century, when they were developed in response to a rapid growth of the formal plant breeding sector, and, consequently, the proliferation of new varieties in the seed market.

Farmers’ varieties are often different from varieties developed through formal plant breeding. Frequently they are not as uniform and stable as formal breeding varieties. As a result, in most cases farmers’ varieties do not satisfy the existent registration requirements, and therefore cannot be legally sold, even if they have demonstrated commercial potential, particularly in certain areas and certain farming systems.

Registration requirements are not the sole impediment to the integration of farmers’ varieties in national seed systems. Being the result of innovation, development, and consumption systems managed principally by farmers, these varieties often don’t fit in the market structures and channels regulated and supported by governments. Forcing farmers’ systems and varieties to fit in such structures and channels may lead to a situation in which farmers’ ability to innovate and contribute to the maintenance and evolution of crop diversity may be lost.

What can be done?

In more and more countries, governmental and non-governmental organizations are attempting to address this problem. Measures include modifying national seed laws so that special criteria are applied to the registration of farmer’ varieties and establishing alternative seed exchange platforms for non-registered varieties. Discussions around these topics are common at the meetings of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty). Articles 5 and 6 of the Plant Treaty call for the countries to adopt measures that support the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, of which farmers’ varieties are very rich. Article 9 recognizes countries’ responsibilities to realize farmers’ rights as they relate to plant genetic resources – and the ability to benefit from their own varieties significantly contributes to realization of farmers’ rights. In view of countries’ commitments under these articles, it is a good sign that farmers’ varieties, their values, and the need to give them space in national seed sectors continue to attract much attention among the representatives of the 146 countries that are parties to the Plant Treaty, and of national and international non-governmental organizations that contribute to the implementation of the Treaty.

At the Eighth Meeting of the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty, which took place in Rome in November 2019, Bioversity International and Oxfam organized a side event on “Registration systems for farmers’ varieties in support of the Plant Treaty Implementation”. Experts from four countries shared their experiences on integrating farmers’ varieties in national seed and food systems.

In Bolivia, efforts have focused on creating seed and food value chains for native potato varieties, while at the same time amending technical requirements for the registration of potato varieties in the national catalogue of commercial varieties.

In Laos, participatory plant breeding involving researchers from the national agricultural research organization and farmers has allowed to identify and improve farmers’ varieties with valuable traits for the national seed market. Initial discussions on their registration as commercial varieties are taking place.

In Nepal and Zimbabwe, seed authorities have approved lighter standards and protocols for the registration of farmers’ varieties in alternative listings under the national registers of commercial varieties.

This video recorded during the side event aims to increase awareness about activities undertaken under various projects in these countries. We hope that these examples can inspire practitioners in other countries and contribute to further discussions and initiatives on how we can improve access of farmers’ varieties to market.

This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets under Flagship 1: Technological Innovation and Sustainable Intensification

Photo: Native potato varieties on display at the World Potato Congress 2018. H.Holmes/RTB (Flickr)