Readers of the PGG Newsletter will have noted that I was getting a little hot under the collar recently about proposed changes, and their implications, to the way in which we are able to save and distribute seed. As is often the case when it comes to politics and its processes there is a great deal more to this issue than at first meets the eye and things have moved on a little in recent weeks. So I thought that, as a first foray into this blogging world, I would try to lay out, as dispassionately as possible, the current situation.
On Monday 6th May 2013 a new law was put before the European Commission, which creates new powers to classify and regulate all plant life anywhere in Europe. The ‘Plant Reproductive Material Law’ regulates all plants. It contains immediate restrictions on vegetables and woodland trees.
Under the new law, it will immediately be illegal to grow, reproduce or trade any vegetable seed or tree that has not been tested and approved by a new ‘EU Plant Variety Agency’, who will make a list of approved plants. An annual fee must also be paid to the Agency to keep them on the list, and if not paid, they cannot be produced.
Why is a new law being proposed?
Officially, it is to simplify and bring up to date lots of old laws, and ‘increase consumer protection’.
There is a counter argument, however, that says that it seems to be mostly about the globalised agribusiness seed industry needing new laws to cope with gene and plant patents and to be able to register industrial varieties or genes safely and securely before selling them in large quantities to industrial farmers who might otherwise save the seed and sell it or use it themselves without paying a royalty fee.
This argument continues that, in formulating law intended to bring big business under tighter control, the needs of the millions of people who grow flowers and vegetables on a normal scale have been overlooked.
What’s happened recently?
The early drafts of the law were badly written. They really did imply that people couldn’t even swap their own saved seeds with their neighbours for free, although this may have been simply poor wording.
Following an outcry and intense lobbying from consumer groups, small-scale farmers, genebanks, and even some member-state governments, some last-minute changes were made, which have reduced the impact slightly.
What does the law say?
The law starts from the premise that all vegetables, fruit and trees must be officially registered before they can be reproduced or distributed. However, there are, as a result of the pressure applied by interested parties, some notable exceptions to the basic rules:
- Home gardeners will be permitted to save and swap unregistered seed without breaking the law.
- Small organisations can grow and supply unregistered vegetable seed – but only if they have less than 10 employees
- Seedbanks can grow unregistered seed without breaking the law (but they cannot give it to the public)
What concerns remain?
Basically, as in all law, the devil is in the detail. Much of the small print has yet to be written and, the fear is, may in fact not be written until after the new rules have come into effect. Equally it is as yet unclear whether the ameliorations to the law outlined above will survive into the final version in any useful form.
There are other concerns too that the law is still overly restrictive (there are all sorts of rules about labelling & sealing packets for example) and in the long run will make it much harder for people to get hold of good seeds they want to grow at home or for small scale sustainable agriculture.
It is important to note that this is a starting point; a draft law, not the final version. The next stage will be for presentation to the European Parliament for modification or approval. Together with the EU Parliament and Council the European Commission held a conference on 13th June aimed at explaining further the intent and potential outcomes of the new legislation. Much has been done to satisfy the many and very real concerns that have been voiced but justifiable fears remain.
As I suggested at the beginning of this piece, it is not my intention to give you my opinion or to stir you into a particular course of action. There are many more out there much better able to do that. But this is an important subject and it is important that we arm ourselves with the facts, in pursuit of which you could do worse than logging on to www.seed-sovereignty.org/EN/. And, of course, feel free to comment…