Last year, we drew your attention to European Commission (EC) proposals for an ‘Animal & Plant Health Package’ (APHP), ominously intended to regulate everything ‘from farm to fork’. Central to the APHP is a review of existing legislation on seed and plant propagating material, known in the real world as seeds. If you have misgivings about the bureaucratic monster that is the EC exerting further control over Europe’s seed supply, we’re right there with you – and we’re not alone. The EC’s proposed ‘seed law’ is turning out to be one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in its history. Here’s our lowdown of the issues, the current situation and how to make your voice heard.

Cutting back on complexity?

The EC released its proposal for a Regulation ‘On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law)’ on 6th May last year. The 147-page draft legislation is needed, we are told, because it will pull together and simplify 12 existing pieces of European Union (EU) law that date back to the 1960s and 1970s. An impact report prepared for the Commission on the proposed seed law points out that the EU seed market is huge, accounting for more than 20% of the world market and worth an estimated €6.8 billion. Despite the concentration of the seed sector in the hands of a few big companies – “the largest 10 companies represent nearly 67% of the global seed market” – small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) “play a crucial role in the internal market”. Large and small businesses alike, “notably SMEs” in fact, will benefit from the “level playing field” established by the proposed Regulation’s focus on “simplification”, “flexibility and responsibility sharing” and something called “coherence and horizontal linkages”, which considers factors such as “sustainability, biodiversity protection and climate change”.

Flowering of alarm

Away from the Commission’s positive language about its own proposals, there is widespread concern – even alarm – at the seed law’s implications. Prime among the worried parties is the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) grouping in the European Parliament. Their official position states: “The proposed European legislation on production and marketing of seeds is a serious threat to biodiversity and long term food production. The proposed regulation as it stands now is not favourable to genetic diversity, farmers’ rights, and the interests of small and organic breeders. It was created to serve the needs of the multinational seed industry…” Elsewhere, the Greens’ commissioned report, Concentration of Market Power in the EU Seed Market, takes the EC to task for using industry data to paint a misleadingly rosy picture of the market’s diversity – a line flatly contradicted in the EC’s own impact assessment of the seed law.

Green coalition

The Greens’ concerns are echoed by a remarkably unified cross-section of civil society. The major areas of criticism can be summarised as follows:

  • The proposed legislation extends the scope of the legal framework from the seeds of major arable food crops to all ‘plant reproductive material’ – i.e. baby plants, cuttings, etc. – of all vegetables, flowers and other plants
  • The drafting process was heavily influenced by lobbyists from the seed industry
  • Biodiversity has already been diminished by the existing EU seed legislation, “Which only allows the farming of market seed varieties that match the “distinctness, uniformity and stability” (DUS) criterions [sic] that, de facto, favour industrially-produced and monoculture-friendly seeds.” As the Greens point out, the DUS concept – which remains intact in the proposed new Regulation – is incompatible with either living plants or organic production
  • The new Regulation proposes what amounts to a system of pre-market approval for plant reproductive material: if it isn’t approved, it can’t be sold. This system requires seed varieties to be registered on the EU Common Catalogue of Seeds, and plant breeders to obtain official certification. The Greens claim that small farmers and breeders won’t be able to afford this “expensive and bureaucratic procedure”. Notice any similarities between this proposal and EU legislation like the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD) and Food Supplements Directive (FSD)?
  • Although the Commission’s initial draft included several exemptions to the registration system aimed at smaller operators, changes proposed by the Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) and the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committees remove them entirely
  • In the absence of any exemptions, we face a situation where even home gardeners will be prevented from exchanging seeds, cuttings etc. as they wish
  • The EC wants to replace 12 existing pieces of legislation with a single Regulation. Unlike Directives, EU Regulations must be implemented wholesale by all EU Member States, with no ‘wiggle room’ for countries wishing to preserve biodiversity, for example.

Seeds of controversy

As the EC’s highly controversial draft law makes its way through the EU legislative maze on its way to becoming reality throughout all Member States, it is encountering significant resistance. More than mere resistance, in fact: the ENVI Committee voted to reject the seed law in its entirety on 30th January. The Socialists & Democrats (S&D) grouping in the European Parliament declared its intention to do the same at the vote in the AGRI Committee, scheduled for 11th February.

If the draft seed law gets the nod from AGRI, the next step is a plenary vote on 15th April. In essence, a plenary vote means that there is still the opportunity to have it rejected by a majority of Member States through the Council of Europe in the EU’s co-decision procedure. But it will mean hard and persistent campaigning across the Member States to achieve change given that the Member States usually vote the way of the European Commission. The best time to make your voice heard is now, through the MEPs on the AGRI committee.

A positive vote from AGRI is far from assured at this stage. Should the proposed Regulation be rejected, it will return to the unelected European Commission for redrafting – at which point, the elected Members of the European Parliament on the AGRI and ENVI Committees will lose the ability to influence the text. The EC has already confirmed that it will continue work on the Regulation even if Parliament rejects it.

European Commission versus nature

As we’ve observed developments with the seed law, the parallels between it and the various strands of EU legislation affecting natural healthcare have become blindingly apparent. Like the THMPD, the seed Regulation will – if passed – impose stringent artificial DUS standards on plants and seeds, exactly as demanded of herbal medicines by the THMPD’s quality standards. Like the FSD and THMPD, the seed law will enact a form of pre-market authorisation to all forms of plant reproductive material. And, like the whole benighted raft of anti-natural health laws, the seed law strokes the fat cats of big business until they are purring fit to burst.

Nature and biodiversity, it seems, are minor concerns compared to making things easy for the big boys – and with the dreaded Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a major priority of the incoming Italian EU Council presidency, things may be about to get a whole lot worse.