Tomorrow, the 11th of February, 2014, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will meet to discuss and re-vote on the passing of a proposed new EU regulation which, if made into law, will enforce massive restrictions on the way that seeds can be sold, swapped, or even simply saved (1) (2) (3). The potential consequences of this would affect the biodiversity of the whole world.
The new law, known as the Plant Reproductive Materials Regulation, was first proposed in April last year, when it consisted of 145 articles which together made up the new regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (4). Put simply, the regulation will make it mandatory for all member states to enforce as law the restriction of sale and use of any seeds which have not been registered with and approved by the European Union (EU).
How did it begin?
This is not the first time that governments and trans-governmental organisations have sought to provide restrictions on life itself. Regulations on use of seed first came into force with an intellectual property rights treaty known as the TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) (5). Article 28 of the agreement prohibits "planting, harvesting, saving, re-planting, and exchanging seeds of patented plants, or of plants containing patented cells and genes” (5); so if a company has the rights to a particular variety of plant, a farmer is breaking the law by selling it themselves. Or, indeed, even planting it.
The TRIPS agreement is in force in all 158 World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states (6); and has caused some controversy since its negotiation (see for example 7).
Luckily for small-scale farmers, seed banks, home growers and seed enthusiasts, the TRIPs agreement only prohibits exchange and saving of patented seeds and plant parts, so mainly affects commercial seed companies (5). So, all over the world, people can continue to meet and exchange saved seeds together; for example in the UK, some towns are now holding an annual or biannual “Seedy Saturday” or “Seedy Sunday” (8) — the largest and longest-running being held in Brighton every February and October. The new EU regulation, however, with its stricter controls, would mean that the holding of such events will become illegal.
At the most recent Seedy Sunday in Brighton last week, representatives were present from a very diverse range of groups and interests; from home-grown hand-distilled essential oils to seedbomb-making tutorials, and from permaculture edible forest projects to community orchards. The seeds were all laid out, neatly categorised, in their little paper packets; if the EU regulation comes into force then the perusal of these envelopes will be tantamount to looking at illegal goods.
How the law will affect European seed-saving
Unlike the Seed Directives which the new regulation seeks to replace (1), the Plant Reproductive Materials Regulation will be “a law that will apply to the whole of Europe” (1). In its first proposed state, this encompassed many new restrictions on use of seeds and plant reproductive material, including widening EU controls from only regulating arable and vegetable seeds (which they do now) (9) to include all Plant Reproductive Material, or PRM. So “also cuttings, rootstocks, module plants, and even potted plants intended for planting into your garden” (9).
The new regulation also sought to cover ‘ornamental’ plant varieties as well, vastly increasing the number of seeds which will have to be registered, with the huge cost and paperwork which inevitably will come with this. Ben Raskin of the Soil Association estimates there will be 50,000 more plants to register; but this number could easily be much higher (9).
With the law demanding that every seed variety has to be registered on an EU list, seed banks will suddenly find their produce under intense scrutiny to show that they pass the EU ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ tests (2). These tests have to be paid for by the seed producers themselves, and according to Ben Gable from Real Seeds, it costs £3000 to test and register just one single variety of seed for sale (2). Seed banks, libraries and companies normally have more than one variety; so this would swiftly escalate into a massive bill, with bankruptcy and closure being very real possibilities.
The impact on the home-grower
With all of these restrictions in force, anyone who is not producing seeds on a commercial level would find it very difficult to legally continue their work. This is especially the case with open pollinated seeds; seeds which are
“the kind that adapt themselves to climatic change, new insect pests, that kind of thing”
as Pat Bowen (10), an initiator of Seed Circles in the Brighton area, explains.
Open pollinated seeds are very different to the kinds of seeds which commercial seed companies aim to sell and in many ways are absolutely unsuited to the proposed regulations. “They want all seeds to go on lists where their characteristics are distinctive, and uniform,” says Pat; “these kinds of seeds don’t have those characteristics – and that’s the point!” (10)
A continent with only authorised seeds?
As Kev Coleman from the Genetic Engineering Network puts it, “it’s not just about seed exchanges becoming illegal” (3). Even saving seeds would be illegal; any gardeners out there who have successfully harvested, along with your bountiful crop, the seeds for next year’s grow, would be currently harbouring little packets of unauthorised contraband. In short, if the law comes into practice we are faced with the rather bizarre situation of the seeds in our sheds being placed into the same legal category as a cache of unlicensed machine-guns; and presumably they are seen as just as dangerous.
Room for exemption
The regulation has received widespread criticism from all over Europe, with groups such as the Campaign for Seed Sovereignty (11) organising resistance. The issue is not simply a European one, however; if the restrictions were to come into place, the impact of the sharp decline in biodiversity, as saving seeds from non-commercial varieties becomes an unviable option, would have an impact on the ecosystem of the whole planet.
Indeed, the proposals are so strict that the consequences would be reaching far beyond simply seeds and into the food which we eat and which will be allowed to be imported or exported into the EU. As Ben Raskin points out, “even a carrot [or a potato] is potentially a PRM [and therefore subject to the restrictions] — maybe we should keep quiet on that one just in case” (9).
Many international groups are in opposition to the proposed regulation as well (see for example 11); and last month all of this vocal objection came to fruit.
The law has been being debated by two committees of the European Parliament; the Environment Committee and the Agriculture Committee. On January 30th the Environment Committee voted unanimously (49:0) to reject the law entirely, and send it back to the Commission for redrafting from scratch (2).
This is a decisive victory for small-scale growers; though there remains a perceived need to keep up the pressure on MEPs as the date for the re-vote draws ever nearer. One option is to keep the regulation more or less as it was proposed; but to simply ensure that it is only applicable to commercial seed companies. After all, they are the ones where a lack of regularity amongst their produce may be a negative (if they are to continue operating in the current agricultural and economic system) whereas for everyone who isn’t a large seed company the results would be catastrophic.
“Of course you need regulations about the seeds that big seed companies are selling,” says Pat Bowen,
“But you also need exemptions, for the smaller producers and these different kinds, so that they can stay around. Because at some point in the future you might need a cauliflower that’s got resistance to something in its genetic heritage, which will have been lost if it goes the big seed companies’ way, because they all want big cauliflowers that all look exactly the same” (10).
Still time to save our seeds
The new regulation claims to be about preserving biodiversity and heightening food security (2) (4). This makes sense if we look at the world from the perspective that the only way we can feed a growing population is to farm more large areas of land. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that we already have the ability feed everyone; for example, in his report on Right to Food, UN Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter claimed that in 2008 we produced enough food on this planet for 12bn people (12). This, even though much of our agriculture is practised in highly inefficient ways.
The European Parliament, though subject to pressure from large companies, is still made up of elected members who ostensibly have to listen to their constituents. As the vote on January 30th demonstrated, if you are a resident in Europe, it is still worth contacting your MEP and letting them know your thoughts on the regulation, in time for the re-vote on Tuesday.
Saving Our Seeds
Preserving biodiversity can be seen as having increasing importance as various factors threaten to undermine the continuing abundance of different varieties of plants and animals which currently make our world interesting: from chemical pesticides threatening to eliminate species (see for example 13), to only vegetables which all look the same being fashionable.
Seed saving is a key way we can preserve biodiversity and ensure food security; and therefore increase the level of comfort for us and everyone around us. We will continue to grow and harvest our seeds; and hopefully February 11th will see governmental actions following us. If not, the term ‘Seedy Sunday’ may have to take on a whole new significance as the seed exchanges go underground.
- Garden Organic, 2014. Save Our Seeds. https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/support_us/saveourseeds.php
- Gable, Ben. “All About the New EU Seed Law”. Real Seed Catalogue, 2014. https://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedlaw2.html
- Coleman, Kev. Interview with me at Seedy Sunday, Brighton, 02/02/2014.
- European Commission, 6/5/2013. “Proposal for a
regulation of the European Parliament and of the council on the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law)”. European Commission: Brussels
- General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs, 1994. “Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights”. https://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/27-trips.pdf
- "WTO TRIPS implementation". International Intellectual Property Alliance. Retrieved 7 Feb 2014. https://www.iipa.com/trips.html
- Correa, Carlos M, 1999. Intellectual Property Rights, the WTO and Developing Countries: The TRIPS Agreement and Policy Options. Third World Network: Penang
- Seedy Sunday, 2014. “Events”. https://www.seedysunday.org/category_id__9_path__.aspx
- Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol.
- Bowen, Pat (Seed Circles). Interview with me at Seedy Sunday, Brighton, 02/02/2014.
- Campaign for Seed Sovereignty, 2014. “Sowing the Future”. https://www.seed-sovereignty.org/EN/
- De Schutter, O, 7/8/2013. “Right to Food”. Report to the United Nations General Assembly.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014. “Ecological Risk Assessment: Technical Overview”. https://www.epa.gov/oppefed1/ecorisk_ders/