On the 7th of February 2023, a seminar on EU reform of seed marketing rules was organized by Sarah Wiener and Martin Häusling MEPs at the Lower Saxony House in Brussels to present a study commissioned by the two Green MEPs to ARCHE NOAH, a nonprofit association dedicated to conservation, development and dissemination of endangered cultivated plants. The study and the event aimed to inform the discussion on the upcoming Commission proposal on seed marketing reform. LiveSeeding partners IFOAM OE and Rete Semi Rurali were invited in the panel discussions, while LiveSeeding project coordinator and several other partners have also attended in person or online.
Seminar was introduced by Sarah Wiener MEP. She highlighted the importance of crop diversity “to be able to defend our world heritage; it is precisely this diversity that will make us resilient to crises”. She also raised her concern as “we are losing diversity of crop varieties because we have a situation where few large corporations dominate our seed system”. She added “they created a monopoly in their own interest and not the interest of our and the plants’ health”. She then invited the panel to discuss the important piece of legislation.
Dorothée André, Head of Unit “Plant Health” at DG SANTE gave an overview of the legislation and of the European Commission’s plans. The current legislation dates back to the 60s, when productivity and quality of seeds were the two objectives. These are still valid but need to be integrated with new ones to make the legislation “fit for purpose” in a changed context. Climate change, environmental degradation and resilience challenges make such revision of legislation very much needed.
The Commission also wants to counteract some unwanted side effects of the current legislation, for example on excessive restrictions that hindered diversity of seeds available to growers. The new organic regulation and specifically the adapted rules on organic varieties and OHM will be taken into account.
The revision of the current legislation takes place within the framework of the European Green Deal and its Farm to fork strategy, which includes seeds security and diversity. Objectives of the new legislation are: simplify and modernize; improve coherence with other related legislations; foster innovation (e.g. digitalization); cater for biomolecular techniques (not GMOs); facilitate registration of organic varieties (and provide financial means to achieve this); conservation and sustainable use of plan genetic resources.
While drafting the new legislation, the orientation of the EC is:
- On conservation varieties: to lift most of the restrictions, e.g. quantitative and geographic restrictions, and expand the scope not only to conservation of past varieties to newly bred locally adapted varieties.
- Organic heterogenous material (OHM): the current legislation has specific provisions for OHM only; the intention is to cover both organic and non-organic HM.
- Exchange of seeds in kind among farmers: to allow it under specific conditions, to avoid this possibility being misused.
In terms of timeline, the European Commission aimed for the 7th June 2023 to present the legislation and start the co-legislative process with EP and Council. We now know that this has been postponed to end of June 2023. Details on the legislative process can be found here.
Hannes Lorenzen, President of ARC2020 and moderator of the panel discussion wondered if this legislative revision would be an opportunity to change the current EU’s paradigm, where “conventional agriculture is considered the rule and organic agriculture the exception”.
Katherine Dolan, Head of Policy at ARCHE NOAH, presented key highlights from the study “EU reform of seeds marketing rules. Which seeds for a just transition to agroecological and sustainable food systems?”. She started reminding participants that in 2018 the UN recognised the human right to seeds and she hoped that this will be included and reflected in the new EU legislation.
All levels of the process from varieties registration to seed marketing to labelling and packaging are a slow and costly process, i.e. a big barrier to entry. She stated that “the reform is needed because diversity is key to meet 21st century challenges, while the current regime favors highly genetically uniform plant varieties for industrial agricultural production models”. 4 key issues emerge from the study in relation to the EC inception impact assessment of 2021 on the scope of the legislation; the conservation and sustainable use of cultivated plant biodiversity; the system of variety registration and seed lot certification; and the governance of the EU seed legislation. For each of these key issues, recommendations included in the study were presented.
Eric Gall, deputy Director at IFOAM Organics Europe, presented the position of the European umbrella organisation for organic food and farming, with its almost 200 members in 34 European countries:
- IFOAM Organics Europe fully agrees that the protection of biodiversity and encouraging agrobiodiversity should be guiding principles of this seed legislation reform. IFOAM OE shares most of the recommendations of the report authored by ARCHE NOAH, but Eric reminded that not only hobby gardeners and amateurs, but also professional users of seeds, such as organic farmers and breeders, also rely on biodiversity and need access to more diverse plant reproductive material. IFOAM OE agrees that hobby activities and gardeners should be excluded from the scope of the seed legislation, but also believes that those who sell to professionals are professional. Organic farmers and breeders need to be able to work and farm with genetic diversity.
- Organic farmers and breeders should have access to OHM (like this is now provided by the organic regulation), which is not a variety in the legal sense, but they also need access to so called amateur and conservation varieties, which should enjoy a simplified registration procedure to be added on the seed catalogue, and the use of which should not be restricted by package size or geographic location.
- In addition, registration criteria (DUS) should be adapted for organic varieties, in particular the criteria of uniformity. There is an EU temporary experiment on this, but the new seed legislation should make this principle of the need for adapted registration criteria for organic varieties clear.
Eric Gall, also warned against a deregulation of new GMOs and novel genomic techniques. Such concerns on possible deregulation of GMOs were later echoed in an article from ARC2020.
Riccardo Bocci, Managing Director at Rete Semi Rurali in Italy, during his participation to the panel stated: “there is very little funding for organic breeding, compared to breeding for conventional varieties, we cannot reach 25% organic land without research activities and breeding for diversity. This is a key issue”.
Concerns about the fact that options in the current EC proposal could hinder the invaluable role of informal seed systems by “regulating the exchange of seed between farmers as seed marketing” were also raised and reported in a recent article from Let’s Liberate Diversity, one of LiveSeeding project partners.
Discussions were very rich, with inputs from farmer representatives, MEPs, NGO members and European Commission officials. The full video of the event and discussions is available also here.