The project to create an Access to Seeds Index, which will be compiled over the next few months for a planned 2014 launch, was presented during the 38th session of the Food and Agriculture Organization conference in Rome, Italy, this week (18 June).
The index is inspired by the Access to Medicine Index, which has been published since 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical companies to make drugs available to developing countries. This index ranks 20 major companies according to practices that improve access to medicine, such as drug donations and research into drugs for high-priority diseases in developing countries.
The new index is being developed through talks with industry, farmers, governments and other stakeholders. It is run by the independent Access to Seeds Foundation in the Netherlands, with initial support from the Dutch government. The foundation will begin with the top 15 seed companies.
Ido Verhagen, project manager at the foundation, told the conference that the index will be updated every two years.
John Atkin, chief operating officer of agri-business company Syngenta, and Clement Kofi Humado, the Ghanaian minister for food and agriculture, both told the conference that they are hopeful that the index will prove useful. But both said it will be tricky to ensure that it will benefit small farmers.
Fostering contacts between manufacturers and other stakeholders could bring high-yielding seeds to Africa, as well as those that are resistant to parasites and adaptable to changing environmental conditions, Humado told the conference.
"But to be sure that the new seeds are introduced by international companies in the right way, so as to be useful and not harmful, some points will have to be clarified. International companies should collaborate with local ones, so as to introduce advanced technologies in a way each country can control and to create high-tech jobs," he said.
However, there are doubts about whether such schemes work at all.
Tim Reed, director of the Dutch NGO Health Action International, pointed out flaws in the pharmaceutical index's methods: data mostly come from companies themselves, generic drug manufacturers are not included and, above all, it does not appear to be changing the behaviours of companies and investors.
"Even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which sponsors the initiative, actually reduced its investments in GlaxoSmithKline, the top ranking company," Reed told SciDev.Net.
Wim Leereveld, founder of both the drug and seed initiatives, told SciDev.Net after the conference: "The medicine index gets criticism from both industries and NGOs. This is a normal part of its growth. But it is getting attention. When Pfizer realised it had a low ranking in the index, it discussed with us how it could make progress and improve its ranking."
He added that generic manufacturers will eventually be included and that the index is still young and needs time to show its effectiveness — and the same will be true for the seed index.