A regulation that will grant plant breeders intellectual property rights is in the making at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Officials hope the move will pave the way for the private sector to produce improved plant varieties and contribute to an uptick in agricultural output.
The draft regulation will be sent to the Council of Ministers for approval in two weeks, disclosed Fisseha Teshome, director of seed standard regulation at the Ministry.
Thus far, only state-owned agricultural research centres, institutes, and public universities can breed and multiply seeds. Seventeen such institutions operate under the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), breeding nucleus seeds. It is an initial seed used to produce pre-basic and basic seeds necessary for making certified seeds.
Certified seeds further multiplied for four generations.
After five decades of work, the number of seed varieties produced by breeding seeds in Ethiopia remains insignificant. Demand for improved seeds was estimated at 2.1 million quintals last year, over four times larger than the supply. The research Institute has introduced over 1,400 seed varieties of 50 crop types.
Meeting demand from 18 million rural households cultivating 22.8 million hectares of land, with an average holding size of 0.84ht, has not been easy.
Assefa Senbeta is a plant scientist who worked at the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise (ESE) for over 20 years. He believes increasing the private sector's participation could boost the Ethiopian seed system, which is currently failing to meet the needs of the ever-growing demand. He attributed the absence of intellectual property rights to why no private company is on the formal breeder list. The 16 private companies active in the seed market are involved in the multiplication and distribution of improved seeds after importing them or receiving certified seeds from state-owned research centres.
The regulation in the making intends to motivate improved seed breeders, multipliers and distributors to invest in new and improved plant varieties. They will be assured that they can recover the cost of their investment, according to Fisseha.
The draft regulation grants the exclusive breeder rights to sell seeds of the protected variety, making them eligible to receive royalty fees when their variety is used for commercial purposes.
“This will lead to the release of new, high-yield, and disease-resistant plant varieties that will eventually contribute to agricultural development,” said Fisseha.
The Ministry had previously introduced a proclamation in 2006 that protected breeders’ rights on plant genera and species. Parliament amended the proclamation a decade later. It also issued a directive that governs the licensing of plant breeders' rights earlier this year.
However, the lack of regulation limited the effectiveness of the proclamation as well as the directive, according to Fisseha.
The draft regulation comes in parallel with a bill that proposes to end the state monopoly over the seed market, liberalising it to the private sector. Nonetheless, ending the state monopoly and improving private sector participation is only half the task to modernise the seed supply chain, says Medemdemiaw Neknekie, a crop development expert at the Ministry.
Bayer Crop Science Ethiopia is among the private companies in the seed market. It imports basic seeds from Zambia and Kenya before producing certified seeds domestically. Present in the country since the late 1960s as a supplier of pharmaceutical products and agricultural inputs, it has three seed accredited varieties in Ethiopia.
“The move can incentivise multinational companies to invest in Ethiopia and widen the seed variety,” said Jemal Abdurahman, market development and agronomy representative at Bayer.
If the regulation passes, Bayer plans to invest in the formal breeder seed production business, Jemal disclosed.
Yilma Amenu, a senior agronomist at Pioneer Hi-Bred Seeds, an industry veteran engaged in the domestic production of hybrid seeds, observes that intellectual property protection can offer a strong incentive to attract private investment.
“It motivates breeders to invest in new and improved plant varieties,” he said.
Last year, Pioneer multiplied 150,000 quintals of hybrid seeds and supplied unions in three regional states. However, according to Yilma, the regulation has little relevance since Pioneer imports hybrid seeds mainly from South Africa and multiplies them domestically.
The high costs associated with the seed market is another factor that could prove to be a stumbling block for the private sector. Depending on crop type, it can cost between 250,000 Br and 1.5 million Br to certify and register a particular seed variety, which requires performance trials to be conducted in three sites.
Experts like Assefa also observe that the regulation's potential to improve the sluggish seed supply and perk up productivity is negligible. Close to 90pc of the seeds used by smallholder farmers in Ethiopia are sourced from self-saved seeds and farmer-to-farmer exchange. According to the Ethiopian Statistical Service, of the total cereal produced in the country last harvest season, 11pc was used for seeds.
The majority of farmers show a tendency to depend on the informal system. The formal seed system is not demand-driven, says Biniam Birhanu, manager of Edget, a union comprising 19 cooperatives and nearly 12,000 farmers in the Southern Regional State. Unions discourage seeds from the informal market for fear that the seed supplied might be poor in quality, compromising productivity.
“Although we discourage farmer-to-farmer exchange, the majority of smallholder farmers depend on it,” Biniam said.
Last year, Edget received 1,200 quintals of seeds from state-owned research centres and the regional agriculture bureau, distributed to cooperatives operating under it.
“This is insignificant compared to the demand,” said Biniam.
Shifa Dezgeba, a father of seven, lives in Meskan Wereda, Gurage Zone, farming maize, wheat and teff on three hectares of land. He and the other farmers in his village depend on the informal market to supply seeds. Last year, he sold close to 50Kg of seeds to fellow farmers.
Little does Shifa know the regulation in the making designates farmer-to-farmer seed exchange of protected plant varieties, without the rightsholder's consent, a violation of the breeder’s rights and the law.
The draft regulation pushes farmers to shift from informal to formal seed markets, according to Medemdemiaw. It allows smallholder farmers to sell not more than 10pc of the total harvested product of a protected variety for propagation purposes. In the case of the botanical seed of vegetable crops, the total amount of marketable propagating material is limited to five percent of the harvest.
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