The regulatory framework put in place around 1950-1970 enabled the emergence and consolidation of French production of forage seed.
Currently 30000 tons of fodder certified seeds are produced on 50,000 ha (approximately 1/3 grasses, 2/3 legumes). The early development of the sector, based on a high quality policy, allowed to meet the demands of both French and foreign markets. The recent evolution of agricultural policy and regulations requires new adaptations within the sector. Contractual fodder seeds production, organized around professions recognized skills and structured within an efficient inter-branch organization has the necessary assets to meet these new challenges.
I - Implementation of the French system of fodder seed production, an organization at the service of a quality production
The creation of fodder varieties began in France only after the second world war. Efforts were made to improve not only the breeding, but also the production and marketing of seeds to establish a market of quality seeds, belt of transmission of genetic progress from breeders to stockbreeders. State policy resulted in the establishment between 1957 and 1972 of the national then European regulatory frameworks in which we evolve today with:
the creation of an official catalogue of fodder varieties,
seed certification gradually made compulsory for the main species between 1961 and 1967,
a French regulation which prohibited the sale of forage mixtures on its territory until 2004 to better promote the concept of variety.
The forage seed sector was structured very early within a single organization for all species, the GNIS interbranch, created in 1962. It represents all the actors of the French seed sector (seed compagnies, seed growers, and users).
At the same time, France built the quality control system, developed from the notion of certified seeds, a mission that was entrusted to GNIS, named SEMAE today. In 2015, the GNIS statutes were revised within the framework of the common market organization of the European Union (single CMO) and adapted in the French legislation. SEMAE allows consultation and decision about seed production and seed marketing. SEMAE also promotes the sector in France and abroad.
Breeding organization is well structured: applications for inclusion in the French catalogue are processed by a specific public committee (CTPS). Different varietal tests (DHS, VCU) before inscription are conducted by GEVES to protect breeder innovation and user.
II - Seed production
Certified seed production is realised through a specific compulsory contract between a seed company and a seed grower with a specific variety on an agreed area. A specific deal and minimum rules are engaged. These rules are based on a discussion between the seed grower and the seed company within the interbranch (SEMAE). It includes:
Mutual obligations of the seed grower /the seed company (cropping conditions, lot delivery…),
Agreement and payment conditions,
Rules in case of a dispute between the contract partners,
The total crop delivery article is a part of these minimum rules – this is a protection for breeders’ PVR (Plant Variety Rights).
III - Surface development and production
The development of a strong seed sector in France is a common objective, shared by the state, the farmers, and the seed companies.
It has been made possible in France to develop and consolidate a production of certified seeds and to supply the market with varieties which best suited to the needs of livestock breeders.
The French seed sector for all species is currently made up of:
69 breeding companies: cooperatives, family businesses, SMIs, transnational companies including 12 companies working in forage and turf breeding
17 838 seed growers including 4 165 fodder and turf seed growers
240 seed production companies including 50 working in forage and turf seed production
5 948 distribution companies including 3174 in forage and turf distribution
Millions of seed users: farmers and individuals.
The seed sector for all species allows 11008 full-time equivalents (FTE) except seed growers for a 3.535 M€ turnover. For the forage seed sector, the turnover is more than 300 M€ with 605 FTE.
More than 4000 seed growers produce nearly 50 000 ha of forage and turf seed (1/3 grasses, 2/3 legumes) and 30 000T of fodder certified seed.
650 forage and turf varieties are produced in France with 55 new varieties each year (SEMAE 2022).
IV - Seed growers Federation
Technical research on seed production is carried out by FNAMS (National Federation of Seed Growers) created in 1955. The FNAMS is also dedicated to defending the growers’ interests into the sector, with the French and European authorities; animate their network and elaborate technical and economical references in seed growing. Forage seeds research program deals with implantation, weed control, pest control, disease control, fertilization, irrigation, drying, swathing, and harvesting. The FNAMS is involved in the registration of phytosanitary products for minor uses.
Labosem is the seed grower’s laboratory where their seed samples are analysed according to ISTA standards. These analyses include germination, specific purity, cleaning rate. They allow seed lot validation according to the terms of the seed growing contract between the seed company and the seed grower.
V - State of production of fodder seeds in France
At the beginning of the millennium, French production of fodder seeds was subject to a double competition: on a macro-economic level, it was confronted with other European production, particularly those of the Nordic countries (Denmark) which have developed a strong specialization, particularly in grasses, as well as those of some countries outside the EU (USA, Canada, New Zealand). At the farm level, the gross margin that these crops generate is directly compared to other crop production that can be produced (wheat is often the reference crop).
This necessary competition, which has accelerated over the recent years with the evolution of the European agricultural policy, has the effect of concentrating seed production in the most favourable areas and among producers who have the best control over the cultivation techniques. A rapid concentration of grass seed surfaces was observed mainly in the north and west of France, perennial ryegrass in the north, alfalfa in west and south part of France, red clover in the centre of France. But the context is changing. For example, with some recent difficulties in producing red clover, we are now witnessing production shifts on the continent with this species further north to avoid high temperatures in summer and high levels of pests in traditional area.
Alfalfa is the main legume seed crop produced in France with an average of 20 000 ha. France is the second largest producer of alfalfa seeds after Italy. In recent years, alfalfa seed yields have been impacted by an unfavourable climate.
Red clover seed production is currently around 6000 ha. Red clover seed yield has also been impacted in the two last years by climate and pest damage due the restriction of pesticide (neo-nicotinoid, acetamipride). Crimson clover surfaces are increasing in the cover crop market and other annual clovers are also being developed for this market (T. alexandrium).
The logic of introducing fodder legumes seed crop into France farming systems is linked to the interest of these species as previous crop before a cereal crop. The use of the forage cut is also a benefit in the breeding system. The perennity of alfalfa (2 or 3 harvests) also represents an economic interest. However, most of the legume seed farmers are growing them in cereal farming systems.
Ryegrass seed crops are produced on 9000 ha; Italian ryegrass is the main grass seed production. This crop with hybrid ryegrass is primarily present in breeding farm rotation in the west of France. The other grass seeds (tall fescue 2500 ha) cocksfoot (around 3000 ha) are growing mostly in cereal farm.
The whole surface of organic fodder seeds is expending on the last years with 773 ha in 2011 and 4129 ha in 2021. Alfalfa is the main organic seed production (2340 ha in 2021) followed by field pea.
Throughout its history, the forage seed market has always found itself under a regime of strong inter-annual variability of surfaces and production volumes. Currently, seed production in France is subject to strong competition with arable crops (wheat, maize, rape, corn), the market for which is more competitive.
The situation in seed production is also difficult due to regulations, in particular the loss of pesticide solutions. Pest control is the main issue in legumes seed production, weed control is the main issue in grass seed production. In addition, a strong variability of seed yield is recently related to the recent less favourable climate; yield is penalized by excess or lack of rainfall, or high temperatures during the summer.
VI - Fodder seed market
French forage seed market is on an upward trend with more than 75 000 Tons marketed all species combined (2/3 grass seed, 1/3 legumes seed crop).
Cover crop seed is currently the main market and the main use (36 000 T, followed by the forage market (29 000 T). Organic fodder seed sale is still minor but concerns an expanding market.
But the fodder seed exports are lower than the imports with a negative balance mainly due to the grass seed import from Denmark.
VII - Challenges for the future
As an agricultural country, France has a role to play in meeting growing demand for food. The challenge for France is to accelerate the development of a sustainable agriculture, according to the consumer expectation. Fodder seed production must adapt itself to different factors as chemical solution decrease and climate change. Competition at the farm level between crops is strong and the forage seed production must increase its competitiveness for the national and international market. New performant varieties are expected in this sense to meet the needs of the market in view of a more sustainable agriculture. Developing the organic seed production is also a challenge for the next decade.
Since the 1960s, the French forage seed sector has been structured to allow the users to find available on the market high-quality seed varieties, adapted to its own needs. The proactive role of the public authorities, accompanied by active breeding within public research, then relayed by the private sector, has enabled fodder selection to become part of as a driving force in French agricultural production.
Currently, the evolution of the common agricultural policy and regulations, aimed at increasingly protecting citizens and their environment, forces seed industry and seed growers to adapt their production conditions.
The agronomic interest of fodder production represents a real advantage for seed growers. But the future of these productions remains dependent on the maintenance of an organized sector, appropriate regulations, a performant breeding, support for agronomic research with a view to solving technical problems in seed production and a sufficient remuneration at all levels of the sector.
S. Bouet - November 3, 2022