A new EU wide law is being drawn up to regulate the sale of all seeds, plants and plant material. If it is passed as currently set out, this law will have a major impact on the varieties of vegetable seeds available to UK gardeners, small growers and organic producers.
Every single variety of seed for all commonly grown vegetables will have to be registered on an EU list, otherwise it will be illegal to sell it. To be registered on the list, each variety has to pass a series of tests demonstrating what is called DUS ‘Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability’. It costs nearly £3000 to register just one single variety of seed for sale, and if this is carried into law, it will have a massive effect in limiting the choice of vegetable varieties available. The registration has to be done every year or the variety will be taken off the list and its trading will become illegal.
Although we have had a list system like this for many years, there have been much simpler and cheaper listing options for what are sometimes referred to as ‘amateur varieties’. Now the EU, lobbied by the agrochemical seed industry, wants to get rid of these exceptions and make sure that every country enforces the rules 100%. The Seed Industry seeks to patent and monopolize the planet’s seed diversity. It is lobbying EU parliament and governments to use legislation to take away the ancestral rights of farmers and growers to save, improve, sell and exchange seeds. We need to stop this!
Why will the law affect small-scale and organic growers?
Companies selling seed to large-scale conventional farmers can expect to sell hundreds of tonnes of seed every year, so it is worth the cost of registering new varieties. Plus the seeds they sell will pass the DUS test as this has been designed with the uniform industrial seed in mind. The small producer, home garden and organic market use different varieties which are not suited to pass the DUS test.
The criteria of distinctiveness, uniformity and stability (DUS) required for registration can only be fulfilled by standardised crops which have been perfected in the laboratory and at research stations. A plant breeder cannot meet DUS and other requested criteria without the use of fertiliser, pesticides, mechanisation and irrigation to ensure conditions are stable and to evermore increase yield. Farmers and growers who want to use alternative farming systems (organic, low-input, regional,) or who wish to use traditional ways that adapt crops to the local conditions need to use different techniques of seed conservation and selection which will produce crops unable to meet the EU criteria as these will not necessarily be stable outside of their specific conditions, nor are they uniform due to the natural diversity within the crop, and they are constantly evolving. They are also not adapted to industrial processing or widespread distribution.
Moreover, registering new varieties will not be financially viable as the organic/small grower market is much smaller and won’t be able to pay thousands of pounds every year to register each variety- they just don’t sell enough of these to make it financially worth their while so they will simply drop those varieties, and as they do, these varieties will become immediately illegal to sell or trade, and they will be lost forever.
Why do small growers and gardeners need their own varieties?
Seed varieties suitable for big scale farming very often aren’t appropriate for home gardeners and small growers. For example: large scale farmers usually want all of their produce to come ready at the same time, so that they can harvest and sell a whole field’s worth. Gardeners and small growers usually want their crops to mature over a longer period.
Another example: big farmers generally don’t want to grow climbing peas, as they need supports and can’t be harvested mechanically. Lots of small growers prefer tall pea varieties, as they are more productive in a small space, and often have a better flavour. There are hundreds of examples like this – the needs of small scale growers and large-scale intensive and agrochemical farming are very different.
Are there exceptions to the rules?
The European Commission is trying its best to make sure that all seed is covered by their legislation. They have included a few exceptions to the new laws, but these are very, very limited.
It currently looks like the exceptions will only apply to old varieties – so they won’t cover any new varieties for small, sustainable growers (which is vital as a key to sustainable farming is to be able to adapt varieties to conditions and climate change will mean new varieties will be needed). These exceptions will only apply to very small producers of varieties that come originally from their specific area – for example people selling a few packets of a local variety on a market stall, but not outside their area. So all the professional seed companies will be very restricted in what varieties they can offer to growers- this will affect disproportionally the small seed companies producing a wide range of heritage and organic varieties, which most small-scale growers depend on and highly value.
At one stage an exception for ‘micro businesses’ was proposed, but this has been taken out in the most recent drafts.
Does this only apply to vegetables?
The new regulations will cover all Plant Reproductive Material: ie all seeds, plants, trees, cuttings and bulbs; even wildflowers.
All types of enterprises and initiatives would be affected (small seed companies, heritage collections, seed libraries, seed-swaps, garden centres, farm-saved seeds, local seed trade; growers’ exchanges, etc….)
Is there anything that people can do?
The LWA calls everyone to write to their MEPs, telling them that they want to have a choice over what vegetable seeds are available for them to buy and for their local growers to produce crops for the market and that the new laws are not fit for small-scale growers, organic and low-input producers and these should be excluded from the legislation.
This wild attempt at taking ownership of our genetic plant heritage and to take control of the source of all food and all life by the big corporations is a threat not only to our food security an earth diversity, but to our basic rights as human beings; seeds are the pillars of the food system and all plants, trees and flora. This is unacceptable and any political representative or public official should stand against this attack to their constituents and the public.
Please write to your MEP (that’s your Member(s) of European Parliament) and raise some of these points, MEPs on the Agriculture and Environment committee are directly involved with the law. Most people will have at least one of these MEPs in their home region – they are the best person to write to at this stage. To find your MEP you can search by postcode at https://www.writetothem.com/ or search by area at official EU website (https://www.europarl.org.uk/en/your_MEPs/List-MEPs-by-region.html)
You can use your own words to express your concerns. Below are some of the key demands we think we need to make, if you want to include some specific points for action in your letter.
1- Obligatory certification is expensive, for the suppliers as well as for the consumers. It also reduces significantly the number of varieties that can be grown and contributes to reduction of biodiversity. Therefore, compulsory certification should be abandoned. Users should be free to choose between officially certified and likely more expensive, seed quality and seeds with a supplier’s label. At the very least, the new laws should no cover seed sold in small packets for small-scale home and commercial growers and gardeners.
2- People, whether they be farmers or gardeners must not be obliged to buy seeds or other “plant reproductive material” from commercial providers. Any regulation must guarantee the rights of farmers, growers, gardeners and all collectives to use, exchange and sell their own seeds and plants, to respect all Human Rights Declarations and the International Plant Treaty (ITPGR-FA).
3 – The industry standard should not be the adopted standard for the seed and plant market. It implies a technical and legal definition that natural plants cannot comply with and it does not recognise other alternative growing system outside industrial farming such as low-impact, organic and small-scale growing, it also ignores the key significance of biodiversity.
3- Freely reproducible plants should not be subject to compulsory registration for varieties or certification of seeds and plants. Biodiversity should take precedence over commercial interest, as it is a public good, just like water.
4- Labelling requirements should be truly transparent and reflect the technological developments, including new microbiological breeding methods, and any technical and legal restrictions of use.
5- Official controls governing seeds and plants shall remain a public service and shall be provided free of charge for small operators (micro-enterprises).
If you want to get involved campaigning against this law or just want to be kept updated on new developments please get in touch- firstname.lastname@example.org (please write “Seed Law” on the email heading).
Further info and updates:
- Bifurcated Carrots
- Real Seed Catalogue
- Garden Organic and Heritage Seed Library
https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk (News> Save Our Seeds)
- LandWorkers’ Alliance
- Campaign for Seed Sovereignty
- European Coordination Via Campesina
- Arche Noah