New EU Regulation Threatens Rare Seed Varieties, Agricultural Independence And Food Supply Resilience In Europe

from the how-did-that-happen? dept

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.

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

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.

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, and on Google+

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Comments on “New EU Regulation Threatens Rare Seed Varieties, Agricultural Independence And Food Supply Resilience In Europe”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It appears to be very common for politicians to not consult the scientific community before making decisions about matters which they do not understand. This is a big problem and seems to be getting worse. With consequences being potentially catastrophic, one would think that input from those who study these matters would be sought and given weight in the decision making process. But many times input from said experts is shunned and their points mocked as if it were some silly conspiracy theory. wth

Anonymous Coward says:

so how does this compare to all the crap i keep hearing about Monsanto? have they got a hand in this? from what i remember, they are doing similar in the USA. it seems to me that there is a serious push here for the world to be controlled by a few very powerful people who will basically stop at nothing to force through what they want and get extremely rich in the process, regardless of the consequences on everyone else!

Mumfi. says:


The ecological people are partially to blame.
The anti-GMO regulations here in EU ensure that only big companies have the economic muscle to certify new variants. And of course all the problems with intellectual rights.

Part of the reasons for this kind of rules are that ?green? certifications are believed to need protection. Protection often means regulation? If you are to ensure no GOs are in your seeds then you need to regulate the seeds. You can?t have it both ways.

Exceptions for small quantities would be a possible solution here. We already have this for so called ?primary products?. Rules such as these should not apply to small scale activities.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Same in Africa, but worse

A similar situation has been brewing in Africa. According to this story at the “AllAfrica” site, American seed interests, with help from the World Bank and others, are attempting to establish a foothold for corporate seed interests to displace locally-grown seed. African agronomists insist that local seed is genetically best adapted to African growing conditions and environments; not surprisingly, Big Seed thinks that African prosperity depends on an explosion of agribusiness interests. “Agribusiness” means massive first-world plantations, of course; so the prosperity train likely won’t pass by the African farmer’s front door, no matter what is claimed. And at the very least, once seeds transition from locally-grown to corporate-grown (and potentially GMO), prices will be out of reach for small African farmers. Far from an economic stimulus, this would appear to leave African subsistence farmers far worse off, and would reduce biodiversity, offering the same homogenized range of crops as is gradually being pushed across the world by corporate seed interests.

Urbanpermaculture (user link) says:

Understanding Organisational stupidity

Just read this. Relevant I feel.

It appears that the problem of stupidity is quite pervasive: look at any large human organization, and you will find that it is ruled by stupidity. I was not the first to stumble across the conjecture that the intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, but so far the mechanism that makes it so has eluded me. Clearly, there is something amiss with hierarchically organized groups, something that causes all of them to eventually collapse, but what exactly is it?

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