On November 28, in collaboration with SEED Luxemburg and the Greens/EFA, the Seeds4All project took part in the organisation of a conference at the European Parliament on the future of seeds. Delving into the heart of the matter, the main aim of the event was to spotlight the specific voices and urgent demands of artisan seed producers in the context of the reform of the European legislative framework applicable to the sale and exchange of seeds. Where does the legal framework stand? Does the Commission’s proposal take account of the specific needs of small seed producers? Does it go in the direction of a common right to seeds and their reproduction? Would it truly encourage the regeneration of cultivated biodiversity? In this article, we highlight the key insights gleaned from the conference.
By Mathieu Willard and Adèle Pautrat
The EU’s seed marketing legislation is one of the main causes of a significant decline in cultivated diversity. Traditional and indigenous varieties are being eradicated due to stringent regulations and high costs associated with compliance. This legislation has encouraged the spread of a small number of uniform varieties, most of which are heavily dependent on chemical treatments, threatening the independence and autonomy of small seed producers and farmers and, ultimately, food security.
The current legislation has also led to increasing concentration of the seed market in the hands of a few, which not only undermines the resilience of rural areas economies but also threatens food sovereignty.
Examining the political landscape, the Green Deal has not lived up to expectations, and the proposal to employ genetically modified organisms as a means to achieve sustainability goals raises huge concerns.
As the political framework for farming and food production legislation deteriorates, it is crucial to recognise the imperative of defending and enhancing genetic diversity. This is the main argument that led to the rejection of the last proposal to reform Seed Marketing in 2013, and it should still be a central point of focus in analysing this one.
To fight for biodiversity and genetic diversity is, to us, the only way to ensure greater resilience and facilitate the transition to a more sustainable agricultural system.
“Seeds of Europe”
To get into the evening’s topics, the event started with the premier of the superb documentary “Seeds of Europe”.
Directed by Lennart Kleinschmidt and Lotta Schwenkert, this short movie gives the floor to artisan seeds producers from Ireland, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic, whose words reflect both the diversity of European agricultural ecosystems and the common struggle for recognition of their much-needed work.
Insisting on the absurdity of a legal framework that tends to place their activity in the same field of legality as the sale of certain illicit products, they all express their opposition to a monolithic legislation designed for the needs of an industrial production model, dominant since the second half of the 20th century and still just as reluctant to let alternatives prosper.
Strikingly beautiful images of magnificent landscapes and inspiring collective projects pay colourful tribute to the people and practices that strengthen food sovereignty around Europe. This film is an invaluable resource to be shared without restraint, for the aptness and simplicity with which it illustrates the stakes involved in defending the rights and importance of alternative seed production.
Find the Seeds of Europe film here or click on the image above
Regenerating agrobiodiversity in the EU – particular issues and urgent needs
Following the screening, the audience listened to a discussion between panel members with diverse backgrounds: Frank Adams, artisan seed producer and co-founder of the SEED Luxemburg network, Magdalena Prieler, policy officer of the citizen seed conservation association Arche Noah, Christophe Golay, researcher at the Geneva Academy specialising in the right to food and the right to seeds, Blanche Magarinos-Rey, legal expert on the EU legislation for the marketing of seeds, Chloé Mathurin from the European Coordination La Via Campesina (ECVC), Green MEPs Benoît Biteau and Claude Gruffat, as well as Dorothée Andrée, Head of the Plant Health Unit at the Commission’s DG AGRI.
Ms. Andrée presented the proposal to reform the EU’s Seed Marketing legislation as a well-calibrated compromise addressing a range of requests. And although the Parliament rapporteur Herbert Dorffmann couldn’t attend in person, he sent a video reiterating the commitment to reassure the audience about the good intentions behind protecting small farmers and breeders who aim to enhance biodiversity in the fields. However, as emphasised by Green MEP Martin Häusling, the devil lies in the details. And the panellists invited to express their views were particularly clear in highlighting critical points of tension.
A toxic package
The proposal for the revision of Seed Marketing and the proposal on the deregulation of GMOs are linked in many ways. And those links show that certain aspects of Seed Marketing are being designed to facilitate the entry of GMOs on the EU market.
First, there is the perfect similitude between sustainability criteria included in the registration process of seeds and sustainability criteria for approving ‘category 2’ plants derived from new genomic techniques (NGTs). To learn more on this point, we invite you to read our previous article on the topic.
Second, the labelling of genetically modified traits in varieties is inconsistent between the NGT and the PRM files. Whether in the official seed catalogues or on the seed packages, the rules for labelling need to be strengthened.
Third, the provisions in the Seed Marketing proposal to avoid detrimental environmental effects of certain varieties, like Herbicide Tolerant (HT) plants, are poorly drafted. Indeed, it is the responsibility of Member States to impose specific cultivation conditions for these controversial HT varieties, but no controls are foreseen.
On the farmer side, represented by ECVC’s Chloé Mathurin, there is also a fear that some new commercial categories, such as new conservation varieties and the extension of heterogeneous material to non-organic seeds, could create an easier path for GM seeds to enter the market. Indeed, with these new categories, companies do not need to stabilise the seeds into a variety to obtain a plant variety right, which is convenient because GMOs can be difficult to stabilise.
In theory, small farmers welcome the introduction of greater seed diversity in commercial offerings through the creation of new legal categories, which should enable seeds to be better adapted to agroecological practices. But in practice they fear that too little is being done to avoid ending up with untraced, patented GM seeds in these new categories. What is even more concerning is that these seeds are not covered by a plant variety right but only by patents. In consequence, farmers would lose the farmer’s exemption and the right to reuse seeds from the harvest.
Overall, the interactions between these two pieces of legislation tend to show that they will work hand in hand to facilitate the entry of GMOs into the EU market, including HT varieties.
Not fit for gene banks, seed savers and small breeders
According to Magdalena Prieler of Arche Noah, although positive derogations are foreseen for the marketing of seeds to home gardeners and of conservation varieties to farmers, the provisions for gene banks and seed saver networks are not fit for purpose.
They will endanger the preservation of the remaining genetic diversity of cultivated plants and go against the commitment of the EU and its Member States under the Conservation on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
Moreover, for the smallest scale seed producers, the overall regulatory burden is so high and would require so much extra time, extra staff and extra skills that it will cause many to cease their work with diversity or move into illegality.
Peasant seed systems in danger
In the climate and biodiversity crises, peasant seed breeding is essential, as peasant seeds can adapt to local cultivation conditions. Peasant seeds therefore have the potential to be resilient in the face of extreme climate stresses and to help reduce the use of chemical input.
And to do so, farmers need to be able to exchange their seeds. It is a practice that has been going for thousands of years and is recognised as a formal right in several international instruments. But the Seed Marketing proposal fails to implement these rights.
A big issue in the proposal is that the exchange of seeds between farmers is defined as marketing. It means that small farmers who exchange a few seeds with other farmers are considered as seed companies and that the plant health rules of seeds marketing will apply to the seeds farmers want to exchange.
In practice, seeds will have to be cultivated in plots separated from the plots aimed for agricultural production. This goes against the very objective of the derogation, which is to allow dynamic management of seeds on farm.
Another limit is that the exchange can only concern seeds and not all PRM (such as cuttings, plants), which doesn’t correspond to the practices of farmers in the field.
Failure to fulfil the inalienable right to seeds
Dr. Christophe Golay from the Geneva Academy highlighted that while the proposal presents possibilities for diversifying the seed market, its current form falls short of acknowledging, safeguarding, and fulfilling the right to seeds.
Specifically, the proposal does not respect many essential aspects of article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP), which refers to the right to seeds. Below are the five main elements of this article.
- Peasants’ right to maintain, control, protect and develop their own seeds and traditional knowledge.
- The right to the protection of traditional knowledge, innovation and practices relevant to seeds
- The right to participate in decision-making on matters relating to seeds
- The right to equitably participate in the sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of seeds
- The right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed or propagating material
Diversity can’t be a derogation
Ultimately, the issue stems from the Commission’s unwavering view that diversity is merely a derogation from the dominant industrial model, rather than recognising it as the primary and enduring solution.
As Frank Adams explains, the work for the traditional diversity of our food plants is a service to the common good. This work not only needs to be recognised but also protected and promoted.
It is not enough to keep diversity in the refrigerators of seed banks and reduce the role of traditional varieties to source material for technological plant breeding. For sustainable food security, we need seeds that can evolve each year as agricultural ecosystems evolve.
Since the preparations for a new law on seed marketing started, European networks have made several proposals to the Commission. But the latter maintains that the right to seeds, as set out in the UNDROP, cannot be implemented because of concerns about plant health, variety protection, seed quality and transparency, as well as unequal competition.
Legal experts, small-scale farmers’ representatives, organic breeders and seed savers in the panel and in the audience joined their voices to oppose that vision. “If these are the real reasons, let us negotiate again, because solutions can be found”.
If not, the Commission runs the risk of failing as it did in 2013.
Experiencing the benefits of regenerating locally adapted crops!
To close this event rich in reflections and exchanges, we had the pleasure of tasting local products giving pride of place to the regeneration of rustic and traditional varieties adapted to the growing conditions of the Pajottenland and Condroz regions of Belgium.
The palates of all participants and speakers were delighted with the traditional Geuze produced by the 3 Fonteinen brewery as part of a partnership established with a network of neighbouring cereal growers engaged in the cultivation of ancient varieties of cereals. More info here. Likewise, we were offered a selection of breads from the hyper-local bakery chain Au Coeur du Pain. More info here.
A slightly more sensitive way of winning political attention and support for the transition to seed-growing practices that promote ecology, short supply chains and the pleasure of eating!