Unless we are farmers, we tend to take seeds for granted. But civilisation is built on seeds: it was the rise of large-scale agriculture, based in part on the skilful breeding of ever-better seeds, that eventually allowed towns and then cities to form; and with them, the trades, arts and sciences that were possible once enough food could be produced by just a fraction of the population. That makes national seed policies -- how governments regulate the production and sale of plant varieties -- a crucial if neglected aspect of our urban lives.
It seems that the European Commission has been working on a massive re-vamp of its regulations governing seeds, and people are increasingly worried by its plans. Here's what the Soil Association, a UK charity founded in 1946 that campaigns for organic food production and related areas, has to say on the matter:
The Soil Association believes the proposed new EU regulation on the marketing of plant reproductive material will put the future of our plant biodiversity at risk. It will have a disastrous effect on the availability of rare varieties and farmers' varieties, and stop the exchange and selling of traditional seeds. This will not only affect farmers and growers in the short term by outlawing exchange of seed not currently commercially available, but in the long term will erode the diversity of species that even the large seed companies, who are driving the proposal, need to provide their future varieties.
The draft of the regulation (pdf) is around a hundred pages of pretty dry rules, but the essence is as follows. The new regulation will apply to every kind of plant, and will impose strict rules on those producing or offering seeds and plants commercially. They must register, every plant or seed they wish to sell must be certified, and these must be packaged according to strict rules that even specify what color the attached labels must be.
The intent may be laudable: to ensure that plant material that is available in the EU is safe, and that problems can be tracked back to their source. But the bureaucratic burden and cost of compliance is likely to be well beyond most smaller seed producers. Here's what the Soil Association sees as the chief problems:
The proposed regulation goes even further than the current European seed law which favours the production of uniform varieties (protected by plant breeder's rights) and discriminates against less homogenous open pollinated varieties and populations. This has already resulted in a non-reversible loss of agro-biodiversity. The proposed regulation will require every seed to be registered and an annual license to be paid for each variety.
As that makes clear, the new regulation will discriminate against traditional, unpatented varieties that don't have deep-pocketed companies behind them. That's crazy for at least two reasons.
Under this law it won't be possible to register old and new niche varieties and populations (e.g. conservation and amateur varieties, landraces [naturally-evolved local variants] and farmers' selections) based only on an officially recognized description (ORD), without official registration and certification, as is currently practiced.
If this regulation is passed, not only will we lose a huge number of plant varieties , we will lose the amazing diversity of appearance, taste, and potential benefits such as disease resistance and nutritional content.
Furthermore despite assurances that this law will only apply to farmers the latest draft legislation suggests that every gardener will be subject to the regulation -- the effects will be disastrous for farmers and growers
First, it is precisely these older varieties that collectively have the greatest genetic diversity. That makes it more likely that some of them will be resistant to new diseases, and better able to cope with rapid climate change. By forbidding the sale of these varieties unless they are registered and certified -- something that is likely to be prohibitively expensive given the huge number of them -- the regulations will cause the plants used across Europe to become genetically less diverse, more vulnerable to disease and less able to cope with changes in the environment.
On the other hand, the big multinational seed companies with patented varieties will easily be able to meet the expense of registering and certifying their products. Since the unpatented alternatives that derive from ancient varieties or more recent landraces will no longer be permitted even in local flower and vegetable markets unless fully certified, the dominance of such giant seed companies in Europe is likely to grow. The EU will come to rely on a few very large companies and their limited selection of patented products. As well as increasing the likelihood of cartels forming, and higher prices, this shift will reduce both the independence and resilience of European agriculture.
What's particularly disturbing is that these far-reaching changes seem to have been drawn up almost entirely unnoticed. It is only now that a few organisations like the Soil Association are finally alerting people to what is happening. The bad news is that the European Commission is due to vote on the new regulation next week; but the good news is that a recent email campaign led by the Open Source Seeds site may be having some effect:
We have heard that due to the volume of people writing about this, last minute changes are being considered.
Let's hope so -- they're badly needed.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+