A Review of Variety Release Procedures and Related Issues with Recommendations for Good Practice
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This working paper is a synthesis of experiences gained from studies carried out in Egypt, Ethiopia and Pakistan in 2011/12. The main purpose is to analyse the issues that arise in variety release and to make recommendations for ‘good practice’ that may be useful to those who manage the variety release system. In the context of this paper, the term variety release refers to the full range of activities that occur from the identification of promising lines by the breeder until early-generation seed is available for multiplication. Funding for these studies came from a project of the USAID Famine Fund and was motivated by concerns about the possible impacts of new virulent disease races such as the Ug99 stem rust. That threat still exists but the objective of accelerating variety release for all crops is a high priority, regardless of a specific disease dimension. Moreover, with the entry of private companies in many countries, the breeding environment is becoming more competitive. This requires that the variety release system should be more responsive to a wider range of users (clients) than was the case when all these activities took place within the public sector. This study considers variety release in a broad perspective and with the goal of accelerating farmers’ access to improved varieties. The management of varieties is a key component of the seed regulatory framework in most countries and is usually included in the national Seed Law. It involves the evaluation of candidate lines by a prescribed trials system, the review of data by a technical committee, and ultimately the registration of the variety in an official list. Registration provides an endorsement that the variety has merit for cultivation and confirms its eligibility for certification, based on a recognised name linked to a description. Variety release is therefore a key stage in the formal ‘seed chain’ which links plant breeding to farmers. The justification for these controls is that farmers need guidance on the varieties that are made available, and should be protected from inferior materials that might be offered by unscrupulous traders. However, in practice the technical and administrative procedures are often slow and complex, thus causing a delay in the delivery of new varieties. Each year of delay represents a loss of the benefit that farmers can achieve from the genetic gains made by plant breeding. This study recognises the fundamental principle that a variety testing system can never be perfect. It is always a compromise which aims to provide a service to farmers and breeders within the resources available. The ultimate test of the system is that it provides this service efficiently and does not become a bureaucratic exercise in its own right. To achieve this goal, the regulations and procedures involved should be periodically reviewed, to ensure that the system is efficient and meets the needs of all stakeholders. The target time for completing variety assessment should be two years (or seasons) using a standard protocol that enables all available results to be incorporated in a single statistical analysis package. If there are uncertainties about a variety after two years of testing, then the variety could be provisionally registered/listed pending further information. Delays in testing and release may lead to unofficial ‘leakage’ of varieties from the research system, or to smuggling in the case of varieties that are in use in other countries. It should not be necessary to assess specific agronomic responses, for example concerning sowing rates or fertiliser response, as part of the variety registration system. This will increase the cost and duration of testing without significant benefit. Details of this kind will become evident once the variety is released and enters general cultivation. During the period of official testing, early generation seed multiplication should continue and provisional seed certification of these crops should be allowed, on the condition that no seed is sold to farmers before variety registration is completed. If this approach is adopted, sufficient basic/foundation seed should be available to initiate large-scale production of certified seed at the time when the variety is officially released. The ‘National Variety Release Committee’ (NVRC) must be an independent body and it should represent a range of stakeholder interests, not being dominated by breeders or official institutions. The NVRC is often constituted as ￼a technical sub-committee of the National Seed Council (or Board) which has general oversight of the seed sector and its development within the framework of a seed policy. Apart from reviewing the registration and release of new candidates, the NVRC should manage the national variety list in a proactive way, by monitoring the uptake and performance of recently-released varieties and by deleting those that have become obsolete. The official variety list should be recognised as a working document containing both key information about the origin and characteristics of varieties and useful agronomic details about their adaptation. To avoid the high cost of annual reprinting and distribution, this list should be made available on a website where regular updates can be made and users can easily find the specific information they need. One fundamental dilemma in any testing and registration system is how to recognise different ‘recommendation domains’ within the list. Multi- locational trials in a range of environments naturally favour those varieties of wide adaptation, even though they may not be the best variety in specific locations. On the other hand, where quite localised environmental conditions exist, farmers should be aware of these varieties and be able to access them. In countries with very diverse agroecology, the variety release system needs to be sensitive to the possibility of niche varieties and should avoid discriminating against them. Variety maintenance and early-generation seed production are common constraints in national seed programs, because public breeders do not have the resources or incentives to undertake this routine technical work. Special efforts should be made to address this problem by allocating resources for this purpose and/or by devolving responsibility to a separate unit, under the supervision of the breeder. The availability of a sufficient bulk of basic/foundation seed can be made a condition for variety registration. Running a variety testing and registration service has significant cost implications and this is usually provided from the government budget. Charging users for this service is a good idea in principle but it may have little practical benefit if the majority of breeders work in the public sector and are already short of resources. However, breeders can be required to provide good trial data and variety descriptions when they submit a candidate in order to reduce the work of the official testing service. Where similar agroecologies extend across national boundaries, the use of trial data from other countries should be encouraged in order to reduce the duration (and cost) of official testing procedures. Ideally, this should be formalised in bilateral or regional agreements leading to ‘regional variety lists’, provided the participating countries have standardised procedures for testing and registration. Many varieties of the major staple crops have their origins in the international agricultural research centers. As a result, identical or very similar genetic material is often tested simultaneously in many different countries and this provides a large body of information on variety performance and adaptation. In these cases, a fast-track procedure should be established for the registration and multiplication of such well-documented material, particularly in view of the possible need to respond rapidly to the challenge of new disease races, which was the original motivation for this project. Seed certification is a widely-used system of quality assurance and it is normally available only for varieties that have been officially released and are included in the national list. However this requirement may exclude older varieties that still have merit but have not passed through the formal testing system. The variety registration system should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate older or traditional varieties that are well-known and used by farmers. The same should apply to varieties that originate from participatory breeding or selection programs. If necessary, a separate list could be established for these varieties using more flexible DUS criteria, provided that their merit has been clearly demonstrated. The variety testing and release system is always designed for the staple crops of the country that contribute to national food security. It is unhelpful if this same system is applied directly to other crops such as vegetables, in which the plant breeding and market conditions are completely different. The international seed trade can provide a huge range of varieties of these crops and a more open system of declaration should be considered for these crops so that stakeholders can easily find the seed material and information they need.Many seed industries are in transition from a public sector model to a more diverse structure in which the private sector has much greater role in commercial seed production, and sometimes in plant breeding as well. Variety release may be affected by these changes as the seed sector becomes more competitive. In this situation, it is helpful to have a national seed policy to guide all aspects of seed industry development in a coordinated way and to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are represented in this process. The National Seed Board (or Council) mentioned above would have overall responsibility for monitoring the implementation of this policy. Although this paper addresses the problems of variety testing and release as carried out in many countries, it is should be acknowledged that there are quite different opinions on this subject. Advocates of de-regulation would say that all these technical and bureaucratic processes of variety release should be set aside so that ‘the market can decide’ once the variety is made available. While this approach may be valid in countries with advanced agricultural systems and highly competitive markets, it does have risks in less developed commercial environments. Companies may compensate for any defects by launching a vigorous marketing campaign to promote a variety and sell seed stocks, knowing that it may have a limited life. Moreover, where farming practices are diverse and often lack resources, it may take time for farmers to reach an objective conclusion about performance.