Counting the cost of illegal seeds

Counting the cost of illegal seeds

April 26, 2021
Farmer Livelihood  Intellectual Property 

Continued illegal seed practices have adverse impacts on field productivity, regulatory systems, and farmer’s livelihoods. Illegal seeds are a growing worldwide issue which pose a significant threat to the livelihoods of farmers, global food security and efforts towards sustainable agriculture. Moreover, illegal seed practices carry intellectual property (IP) implications which may reduce farmer access to products from reputable producers.

The seed industry invests billions of dollars each year to develop high-quality seed products, including biotech seeds with unique traits such as drought-tolerance, which can significantly improve sustainable agriculture production and food security. In addition to undermining future investment by reducing the seed industry’s capacity and incentive to continue developing new variants, illegal seeds also put the productivity, income, and families of farmers at risk, reducing their capacity for sustainable food production. It is therefore imperative that governments ensure that legislation sufficiently and effectively deters illegal seed practices. Without proper protections in place, illegal seeds could have a stifling effect on innovation and could jeopardize the livelihoods of our farmers.

What are considered illegal seeds?

While counterfeit seeds are fake, illegal seeds can also be products which are not properly regulated and/or distributed or sold in a legal way. Examples of illegal seeds include seeds which have been stolen during the production and distribution process, seeds stolen from commercial trials, unknown seeds in counterfeit packaging and online seed trading through unlicensed dealers. Seeds sold as conventional seeds, but which possess GM traits and are subject to strict regulation and stewardship, are also classed as illegal.

Most Frequent Illegal Seed Practices?

Several seed practices can qualify as being illegal. For example, illegal seed practices often occur during the vegetative propagation, reproduction, and marketing of seeds which are covered by a Plant Variety Protection right (PVP) or a patent This might start with the theft of patented plant material or parental lines for hybrids.

Another common practice is false labelling of low-quality seeds. In these instances, counterfeiters sell low-quality seeds, disguised as popular seed varieties. This often includes mislabelling products, misusing logos, and adding illegitimate trademarks to packaging, making the seeds appear genuine. In addition, seed discards and grain harvested from hybrids might be misrepresented and sold as genuine elite planting seeds, again misleading and exploiting farmers.

Not only do these practices provide farmers with less income, thereby damaging market confidence in seed quality, they also undermine IP protections safeguarding innovations which are essential to support farmer livelihoods and increase food supply for our growing populations. Genuine seeds help guarantee crop quality and are supplied and supported by responsible seed producers and licensed distributors.

“African Alliance Sets Up Agency to Eliminate Fake Seeds,” African Farming and Food Processing

Farmers’ Perspective

Illegal seeds put the productivity, income, and families of farmers at risk, reducing their capacity for sustainable food production. Farmers often purchase illegal seeds under the assumption that they are more cost-efficient than purchasing genuine seeds. Farmers care about the quality of their seeds. However, the full cost of their choice is not always obvious. This can include loss of quality via lack of quality control, no quality guarantee and the lack of an established relationship between the farmers and an official provider of seeds. Far from being cost-efficient, illegal seeds put farmers in an economically uncertain position. In the long-run, illegal seed practices mislead farmers and erode their confidence in formal and reliable marketplaces. This can create distrust towards new technologies and agricultural practices when farmers do not receive the expected benefits from the seed they purchase.

“African Alliance Sets Up Agency to Eliminate Fake Seeds,” African Farming and Food Processing


Combating the illegal seed trade – the view from CropLife Asia

Our CropLife Asia teams are working continuously to counter illegal seed practices. With the increasing incidence of illegal seeds throughout the region, CropLife Asia’s national and regional teams have been developing a holistic advocacy response.

CropLife Asia collaborates with governments and the entire value chain to advocate for policy changes, enforcement, monitoring, capacity building and public education. Advocacy efforts include strengthening seed laws and pertinent regulations like the PVP act, support enforcement laws to combat illegal seeds, information awareness through conventional and multi-media channels, training, and consultation-dialogues. Despite these positive steps, there are a number of challenges facing CropLife Asia in its efforts to address the sale of illegal seeds:

  • Existing seed regulations rarely contain sufficient provisions to address illegal seeds and penalties are not strict enough to deter crime.
  • The price of illegal seeds is lower than genuine seeds, misleading farmers into thinking these seeds are cost-effective.
  • Farmers pay little attention to the brand name or IP rights, focusing instead on maintaining sufficient seed production.
  • PVP rights are ineffective, i.e. in not providing for effective protection of essentially-derived varieties.

The Importance of Buying Licensed and Regulated Seeds

Licensed seed dealers and reputable seed producers provide dependable seed products which meet strict quality standards, providing guaranteed benefits for farmers. Unfortunately, farmers in some countries are suffering from little or no regulation to protect them from illegal seeds. In countries where laws against illegal seeds exist, they are often not enforced or impose only nominal penalties on violators. Many administrative bodies charged with certifying the quality of commercial seeds lack the training and resources needed to effectively manage this pressing issue. This has led to a rise in the sale of illegal seeds, undermining the IP rights of developers and reducing farmer access to products from reputable distributors, as they may no longer be developed and commercialized. Law enforcement agencies should be provided with effective laws and empowered to act against counterfeiters and illegal seeds. If IP laws are not upheld, the innovation cycle breaks. The impact this has on farmers’ livelihoods cannot be overstated.