Feed the Future
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The Role Variety Identification Numbering Systems Play in Harmonized Seed Trade

This post was written by Aline O’Connor of Agri-Experience, Ltd. and Mark Huisenga of the Bureau for Food Security’s Office of Market and Partnership Innovations.

Common variety identification numbering (VIN) systems require breeding institutions to assign a singular number to each variety they develop and offer for seed production and/or commercialization. This number must always be used to identify the variety for purposes of release, seed production and commercialization, although the presence of a branded name or number by licensors is not necessarily precluded, depending upon national seed laws.

A key constraint to raising agricultural productivity in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of commercial availability of high-quality seed of improved modern crop varieties. In recent years, stakeholders have made a great effort to develop regional variety catalogues to increase the supply of high-quality seed of improved modern varieties. The regional variety catalogue lists varieties that have been released in every country in the region.

Recent regulatory practices in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa required a crop variety to be formally released by the relevant national governing body before the variety could be commercialized and sold to farmers. For many seed companies, the process of releasing a variety they wished to commercialize in each country in which they wished to sell it was expensive and very lengthy. In an effort to address this, stakeholder discussions about regional catalogues have been held, resulting in a formal agreement that if a variety is released in two separate countries in a region, and application for regional release is made and approved, it will then be automatically released in every country in the region. This will become official by formally listing the variety in the regional catalogue.

Regional catalogues have the potential to significantly reduce both the time and expense of releasing varieties in multiple countries, thus increasing regional seed market potential and attractiveness to investors and thus seed supply for farmers.

Large seed multinational companies (MNCs) generally develop and market varieties with proprietary or exclusive genetics; no other seed company has access to the same variety unless the MNC decides to license the variety to a third party. Proprietary varieties are marketed in all countries with a common variety name, e.g., Duma 43.

Medium and smaller companies — generally national or regional players — can have proprietary varieties, but more often they are marketing and selling varieties for which the breeding work was done by an international research center (generally a CGIAR center) or a national breeding program or foundation that obtained the license of that product from a CGIAR center or MNC (e.g., the African Agricultural Technology Foundation under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project).

Varieties from national breeding programs often contain genetic material from a CGIAR center and may be partially or wholly comprised of CGIAR source material. In each country, as national programs or seed companies submit these varieties for release, a unique variety name or number is ascribed to the variety. This results in a situation where two varieties released in two different countries may be identical in terms of genetic make-up (pedigree) and source material but be known by two different varietal or company brand names. When this happens, these varieties are not eligible for regional variety release due to the differing names, thus reducing the market size for, potential investment in, and seed supply of, these varieties.

A VIN system was introduced in the United States approximately ten years ago, and one of the goals of this study is to learn from this experience in order to inform the exploration of a similar system in sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, varieties listed in East and Southern African regional catalogues are largely MNC-owned varieties, and it is hoped that the introduction of a common variety numbering system for varieties bred by institutions other than MNCs will accelerate listing in the regional catalogues, which will then lead to increased commercialization and cross-border seed trade. At present, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa catalogue contains 48 registered varieties of maize and Irish potato. The Southern Africa Development Community catalogue contains 24 maize varieties. 

Since the feasibility study of using a common variety identification numbering system was completed in August 2017 for USAID through Social Impact Agri Experience, Ltd., the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics have reported they have introduced the VIN system, and other international research centers are considering its adoption.


Regional seed policy and regulatory harmonization were originally proposed as a means to encourage broader seed trade by reducing multiple non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g. restrictions relating to national variety registration, variable seed standards, and diverse phytosanitary controls). Within this context, the creation of regional variety lists was additionally promoted as a means to develop regional seed markets offering large enough scale economies to stimulate higher production and sale of widely adapted varieties – including open pollinated varieties. While the adoption of VINs is a useful step, this is not the most significant non-tariff barrier to seed trade in much of Africa. Despite the regional seed harmonization agreements, trade remains limited by constraints in the implementation of phytosanitary controls, lack of trust in the seed quality controls implemented by neighboring countries, difficulties in accessing import permits, problems in maintaining pure stocks of breeder and foundation seed, mislabeling of seed, counterfeiting, and rents derived from closed markets. Indeed, some national breeders prefer to release CGIAR developed varieties under new names in order to take credit for their ‘development’. When challenged, I have heard breeders argue that they created a ‘new’ variety through additional selection. It is time to shift focus from the longstanding emphasis on expanding releases and seed lists, to strategies for speeding seed delivery to rural markets and strengthening farmer demand.

Indeed. Good news is, there is a concerted effort underway to modernize and roll-out many of the harmonization and streamlining efforts that have been underway over the last decade (largely on paper), to effect this change, cutting time to market and making trade and tracing easier. I would invite Mark and Aline to comment at the appropriate time, but such issues are not going unattended. 

David list many of the (real) constraints to expanding seed trade in Africa. I most strongly agree with the last statement "speeding seed delivery to rural markets and strengthening farmer demand." In fact, within and between smallholder communities, there are many varieties of their food security crops that are well known and trusted by smallholder farmers to be adapted to the local agro-ecological growing conditions. Seeds and planting materials of these varieties are available through the local informal seed sector. To increase "farmer demand" of new varieties of any crop will depend on: 1) smallholder community access to knowledge by comparing (new) varietal performance in their space and time (multi-locational demonstrations in smallholder communities) with the crop varieties they grow in their homestead farming systems, and 2) improving the linkages between the formal and informal seed sector to improve access to new seeds and planting materials of available varieties at the smallholder community level.