Seed regulation is the foundation on which South African agriculture is built

The South African Seed Industry has evolved from a major contributor of seed production into a highly competitive dynamic industry driven by meeting the demands of people, the planet and profit. Picture: Supplied

The South African Seed Industry has evolved from a major contributor of seed production into a highly competitive dynamic industry driven by meeting the demands of people, the planet and profit. Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 5, 2024


Underpinning much of the South African agriculture sector’s excellence is fit-for-purpose regulation that ensures a healthy seed industry. The regulations guarantee that seed to farmers is stable, meaning the same popular crops are generally available, along with improved ones each season.

They also guarantee that is seed is of high quality, covers a broad range of crops and that imported seed is free from potentially harmful pests. Because of this, the seed sector significantly contributes to the economy. In 2022, South Africa’s seed industry was worth a staggering R10 258 426 000.

Its value has also grown year on year and a significant reason for this has been a regulatory environment which has ensured the market for seed is a competitive one.

Our seed legislation and regulation also set us apart when viewed within a continental context. They create a seed industry characterised by healthy competition, food safety and innovation.

Competition is vital to ensuring we produce excellent quality products. Consumers will not return to a product that fails or is of poor quality. The same is true for farmers buying seed. This means seed producers need to innovate to ensure their seed is of high quality and will produce good yields to ensure they can retain their customers.

In South Africa, we can trace the regulatory framework responsible for our competitive market back five decades. The Plant Breeders’ Rights Act 1976 and the Plant Improvement Act 1976 kept relevant and functional with amendments throughout the years, with the last amendment in 2018 leading to two new acts.

These are vital pieces of legislation which make the South African market an attractive one for seed producers looking to innovate and provide high-quality products. Other important legislation includes the latest version of the Plant Health (Phytosanitary) Bill, which was recently passed by the National Council of Provinces and awaits presidential assent.

Together with the skill and commitment of our excellent legacy and emerging farmers, the legislative framework has meant South African agriculture can compete globally and is a leader on the continent.

The Plant Breeders’ Rights Act ensures that South Africa is an attractive and risk-free environment that incentivises innovation in the breeding of new plant and crop varieties. It does this by protecting the intellectual property of breeders when they create a new variety. If a company or individual can breed a more appealing or improved version of a crop for consumers, they can own the rights to it.

This gives the seed industry the incentive and the confidence to invest time, resources and money into breeding new varieties and introducing new internationally bred ones, because there is a mechanism to get a return on investment if marketed correctly.

The legislation has also done this in a way which allows smaller players to compete. The cost of registering new varieties for plant breeders’ rights and ensures that varieties are listed on the national variety list which then enables seed to be sold, is at its most expensive under R12 000 per variety of plant. This is affordable enough to put it within the reach of even some hobbyist gardeners.

This means smaller seed companies can afford to innovate and register new crops. By contrast, in some African countries, this cost can be more than R100 000 per new variety registered. Importantly, registration under the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act also harmonises with international regulations, including those of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

This means South African registered seed can be traded overseas, making the seed industry in South Africa not just competitive locally, but also in international markets. Safety and quality are also vital aspects of successful regulation. South Africa’s Plant Improvement act enables not only food security but its safety and quality too.

For example, under the act, all seed sold to farmers, including for animal feed, must meet certain standards and the sellers of this seed need to be registered. This means our agricultural market is not plagued by counterfeit or illegal seed as is the case in other countries on the continent.

Certification schemes included in the act (four in total) includes one for seed – which is implemented by the South African Seed Organisation as the certifying authority. This allows the industry to set the standards for certification ensuring these are up to date and relevant. In some cases, such as for grain seed, industry-led certification requires higher standards than that of the government.

This is important because the requirements for certification meet those of internationally certified seed (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development seed scheme for example) which means the local sector can export seed. Export is also enabled through international phytosanitary standards which enhance our ability to facilitate safe trade internationally.

The government has also launched a new and highly efficient e-certification platform which digitises phytosanitary certificates for export and import. The ePhyto Solution is designed to significantly improve security, border efficiency and global coverage, making the movement of goods across borders safer, faster and cheaper.

The importance of competition in the market cannot be understated. In several African countries, farmers receive their seed from the government rather than private companies. This means farmers have limited choice about what to plant. This does not just mean less choice for consumers in these countries, but also that farmers have less opportunity to trial seed varieties which suit their growing conditions and provide better yield.

The diminished choice of seed for these farmers has a food security implication as well because unlike the South African farmer who can choose not to repurchase seed which does not produce well on their farm, the farmers, unfortunately, do not have this option.

Seed is the starting point for the food we eat and a key contributor to economic growth and employment in South Africa. We have a proud history of being a continent-leader in seed regulation.

Looking to the future, there will be numerous challenges to meet from climate change, globalisation, new and existing diseases/pests as well as growing populations. Meeting the challenges head-on will require a continued commitment to adapt existing as well as craft new seed laws and rules that ensure the market for seed remains competitive.

In this way, we empower farmers to keep food on our tables. For decades, South Africa has had a forward-looking, responsive seed system that contributed to our food security. We must continue this tradition.

Lukeshni Chetty is general manager of the South African National Seed Organisation.