Stakeholders urge the EU to establish a political and legal framework that will maintain and promote diversity in the seed sector.
by Stephan Doeblin for Demeter
The European Commission is drawing up a new law to regulate the sale of all seeds, plants and plant material. The reason, it says, is to bring together and simplify an old set of 12 basic acts, many dating back to the 1960s and 70s . However, this has brought widespread concern and unease among farmers, plant breeders, and the general public.
Biodynamic food company Demeter International and its partners organized a conference on the seed legislation with the support of many NGOs. The conference “Challenges for producers, consumers and citizens: Who will own the seeds?” took place in Brussels on 22 January 2014 with more than 120 participants including representatives of the European institutions, Member State Authorities, farmers’ associations, breeders, seed savers, university academics, the clergy, and journalists.
Päivi Mannerkorpi from the European Commission (Directorate General of Health and Consumers) presented the details of the draft seed law, and suggested that it offers sufficient new possibilities for more diversified production. But policy decision-makers and stakeholders still had reservations.
MEP Martin Häusling (The Greens/EFA) said that seeds are a public good and hence of public interest. Their regulation must be further discussed in public, not only in the European Commission, the European Parliament (EP) and the Council. The Commission’s proposal attempts to put the seed market in order, but doesn’t really begin to address sustainable farming and agro-biodiversity. Consequently the present proposal doesn’t fulfil sufficiently the needs of organic farming. Moreover, the EP was given far too little time to find a satisfying consensus. He does not favour a hasty reaction from the EP to push through this important seed legislation before the coming European Parliament elections in May.
Antje Kölling from the IFOAM-EU-Group outlined the need for changes in seed legislation, emphasizing that appropriate rules must apply for varieties that are adapted to organic conditions. Work with genetic resources by non-professionals must not be regulated, but remain free.
Gebhard Rossmanith, CEO of the biodynamic breeding company Bingenheimer Saatgut AG in Germany, stated that organic breeding of open pollinated varieties needs fair access to the market. This means specially adapted criteria for the registration tests, with the focus on distinctive aspects of organic farming and the needs of farmers and consumers.
Pierre Sultana (Arche Noah, a seed savers’ association from Austria) was concerned about the consequences of EU policy and legislation on free exchange of seeds and agro-biodiversity. The Commission’s proposal is very well polished from a first point of view, but when going into the details, it would further endanger agro-biodiversity in Europe. A shift from a compulsory system of registration and certification to a voluntary one is needed and would really offer “better regulation” while protecting biodiversity.
Guy Kastler (Reseau Semences Paysannes, French seed exchange network) commented the current legal and seed market situation in France and analysed possible advantages and disadvantages of the proposed European seed law. Some issues, like, for instance the legal option of free exchange of seeds among farmers and gardeners would be welcomed, but other parts of the regulation could not be accepted.
Edith Lammerts van Bueren (Wageningen University) gave an overview on the state of the art with regard to seed research and development. To develop our seeds we need to involve not only farmers and breeders, but also other stakeholders in the food chain including citizens. We need to develop plant breeding into farmer-based, ecological, and citizen based breeding models (i.e. “systems breeding”) as opposed to single trait breeding.
Véronique Chable (INRA, France) emphasized the importance of more participatory research (with farmers and citizens) for new locally adapted and open pollinating varieties. For achieving this goal it is necessary to work on the local level in as many places as possible.
Roikos Thanopoulos (Peliti, a Greek Seed Savers and Exchange Network) pointed out that landraces, created by farmers, are a very important component of European agro-biodiversity and are also excellent material for organic farming. Landraces should have their well-defined and appropriate place in the new seed regulation.
Silke Helfrich, author and co-founder of the “Commons-Strategies-Group”, presented a new concept “Commons vs. commodities – a new framework for seed handling”. She said that the current legal and political framework is based on the idea of seeds as commodities. But what we really need is legal protection of seeds and breeding as the commons.
Carsten Berg (Expert for European Citizens’ Initiatives – ECIs) emphasized the importance of citizens’ participation. We could only save seeds and biodiversity for the future, if we succeeded to create much more awareness of citizens and consumers in this field. Establishing a broad European citizens movement is a matter of urgency.
Million Belay, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) reported on the threats of African seed law harmonization for farmers, consumers and food sovereignty in African countries. He said that the conference in Brussels was helpful in understanding the European context and to articulate the African case. Africa should not follow Europe’s way, i.e. that farmers would lose seed sovereignty.
In the final session of the conference it was concluded that Europe is not at the end of the seed legislation process, and further engagement of citizens and NGOs representing civil society is of eminent importance. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) still has its priority set on competition in agriculture and in the seed market. Therefore it is very difficult to achieve seed conservation and enhance agro-biodiversity within the current system. However there is hope for a paradigm shift, if civil society and more and more consumers will express their demand for a European agricultural system and practice, in which seed and cultivated plant diversity is an important basic element.
For more details contact Demeter International: demeter.eu (at) gmail.com; www.demeter.net
- Review of EU rules. European Commission, 2 October 2013, https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/plant_propagation_material/review_eu_rules/index_en.htm