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Update seed regulations

RtS-granen16-9This autumn seed saver organisations from different European countries came together in Vienna, to discuss the current developments with European seed policies and legislation. This text is the result of that meeting.


As some of you may know, the proposal for a new EU seed law was rejected in the spring of 2014. Critics said the law would lead to further degradation of diversity on the seed market and an even larger share for the seed monopolists. New seed legislation has been on the wish list of the seed multinationals, who were involved in formulating the proposal from the start. They want one legally binding law for every EU member state. It is highly unusual that a finalised proposal is voted down in the Parliament. Some considered this a historic victory of democracy over corporate rule. However, many MP’s agreed that the law had become a technocratic and unworkable monstrosity. And with civic opposition against the law spreading fast, and the European elections coming up, the proposal was safely returned to sender, in spite of fierce industrial lobbying.

But the central argument for critics of the law, which is aimed to regulate the EU seed market, is that it makes industrial seeds the standard, rather than real, normal, diverse, farm-saved, genetically varied, freely evolving, open-pollinating, low tech, cheap, traditional, freely accessible seeds. These are the seeds we need for sustainable, low-input food production. Too much diversity has been lost since industrial agriculture took hold.

It is now the end of 2014. Nobody was expecting this, but the new EU Commission suggested to review the rejected zombie seed law. By January 2015 we should know if the new Parliament will actually accept this, or choose the option the previous EU Parliament preferred: to bin the old proposal and develop a completely new seed legislation. Formulating new legislation is a slow process that is unlikely to produce any result before 2016 – but apparently the pressure to hurry up is increasing.


Unfortunately another major threat to seed sovereignty emerges with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. This EU-US trade deal will take away any obstacles to a complete market take-over by seed-multinationals. The deal is being negotiated behind closed doors, undisturbed by democratic intervention or transparency. The information that has leaked out so far makes EU seed legislation look like a picnic. If the TTIP is signed, corporations will have the right to sue governments if they feel that their potential profit is threatened by unfavourable legislation. The huge sums of money involved in the damage claims create major political pressure, as is shown in Latin American countries where similar trade deals are already in place.

The TTIP also creates a backdoor for companies that want to bypass the European GMO regulation. It is not surprising that a large majority of the corporate lobby for the TTIP represents the biotech and agro-industry; big AG. According to them the EU is way too restrictive when it comes to GMOs. But a majority of Europeans do not want GMOs in their food.

EU and GMOs

Earlier this month (December 2014) the EU Commission and Council reached an agreement with MEPs about a proposal for a new and easier procedure for authorising GMOs into the EU. In return, the Commission would grant EU member states the right to refuse authorised GMOs on their national territory, the so-called ‘opt-out’ option. The catch was that the Commission, together with the GMO company involved, would decide whether the arguments for a national ban were valid. As it turns out however, the fresh new MEPs were alert enough to change the proposal so that member states get the final say. In the amended proposal the national governments can ban a GMO for a number of reasons. The Parliamentary Environment Committee said in a statement that “bans could be founded upon, inter alia, the aims of environmental policy, town and country planning, land use, agricultural policy, public policy, or possible socio-economic impacts. Further possible grounds should include preventing GMO contamination of other products, persistent scientific uncertainty, the development of pesticide resistance amongst weeds and pests, invasiveness, the persistence of a GMO variety in the environment or a lack of data on the potential negative impacts of a variety.”

Also the “EU authorisation-light” procedure was scrutinised: “Case-by-case risk assessments to be carried out by the European Food Safety Authority should take account of the direct, indirect, immediate, delayed and cumulative effects of GMOs on human health and the environment, and always take account of the precautionary principle.”

Intellectual Property Rights: Patents

Another area where Seed Freedom is being defended is in patent law. It sounds surreal, but the agro-industrials are rapidly acquiring the exclusive rights to the use of all kinds of plants and animals. These patents distort the market and threaten biodiversity and food sovereignty, but the European Patent Office, EPO, grants these patents to an increasing extent. A platform of civic organisations from all over Europe has now started proceedings in a legal battle against patents on plant traits.

Earlier this year Dutch organic food organisation Bionext, together with the LTO (Dutch horti- and agriculture organisation) and 32 other organisations from 27 European countries, submitted an official complaint at the EPO against the patent held by Syngenta on red bell-peppers. They demand that the patent is repealed. Syngenta’s ‘invention’ concerns a plant trait – resistance to a pest called white fly – that is a common natural trait. It is the first time in history that an official complaint supported by this many organisations has been submitted to the EPO. Just recently the European coalition ‘No Patents on Seeds’ filed a complaint against a patent that was granted to the American company Monsanto in February this year. Patent EP2134870 concerns the selection of soy bean plants on climatologic adaptations as well as the use of several hundred DNA combinations that occur in the normal genetic diversity of soy plants. This soy patent is also valid in regions outside of Europe, such as the US, Canada, China and South Africa. The No Patents coalition accuses Monsanto of biopiracy.

Another influential factor on the global seed market are agreements made under UPOV, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. UPOV started way back as a benign framework to protect the rights of humble breeders against appropriation of their variety by others. In recent decades however, UPOV has evolved into something resembling a global patent rights institution, paving the way for companies invading the African market. UPOV is monitored by seed savers and social justice activists such as Aprebes.

Back to Brussels

The rejection of the new EU-wide seed law means that the current European Directives still apply. How these are implemented in each country varies a lot. Some derogations to the Directives are used by one country but not by the other. France is notoriously strict, using the directives to protect the interests of their rather large seed industry. The huge fine that the Kokopelli seed savers got for dispensing unregistered seeds speaks for itself. European seed savers have now started to collect data and make sure that every member state makes use of the derogations that are favourable for biodiversity.

For biodiversity’s sake the best option now would be if the EP demands that the Commission starts all over and produce a completely different EU seed proposal, more in line with the modern notion of sustainability and diversity. Seed legislation is the responsibility of DG SANCO (Health and Food Safety), now headed by Mr Andriukaitis. He is a Latvian Social Democrat, a former dissident and a surgeon. His stance on GMOs is not known as of yet, but optimists might think his experience in resisting dictators could prove useful.

For many Europeans, processes of decision making in Brussels remain a mystery. Which are the strategic moments to make an impact? Especially in the initial phase of new legislation, when the Commission consults external experts, the corporate lobby is way ahead. After that phase the Commission has to present the proposal to a Parliamentary committee, so that it can be amended and adapted, until it is probably supported by a Parliamentary majority. The entire Parliament votes on the final version.

Several of the new Dutch MEPs responded to an ASEED questionnaire about their position on seed politics. They are expected to vote against proposals that are a threat to biodiversity, as was unanimously decided by the Dutch parliament last year. It is up to us to make sure they stick to this decision, while we continue to save seeds and protect biodiversity. For example through the Dutch Pro Species Rara (pro rare species), modelled after the successful Swiss seed network. These and other valuable initiatives will be topics on the next Reclaim the Seeds weekend on February 28 in Driebergen (NL).