Monday 13 May 2013

Save Our Seeds - Update

The draconian new seed laws described in my last post passed the EU commission last week, with some important last-minute changes for the better. The law will now go to parliament for modification or approval, so there is still a chance of further changes, with competing and vested interests trying to change it for their own benefit. What follows are extracts from Real Seeds' press release (read the whole article here) describing the good and the bad of the final draft of the law:

The law starts from the premise that all vegetables, fruit and trees must be officially registered before they can be reproduced or distributed. This obviously is a major restriction on seed availability, as there are all sorts of costs in both time and money dealing with the bureaucracy of a central Plant Variety Agency. Then, after making that the basic rule, there are some exceptions made in limited cases:
  • 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)
  • There might be easier (in an unspecified way) rules for large producers of seeds suitable for organic agriculture etc, in some (unspecified) future legislation - maybe.
No, not really. These concessions might be helpful, but are still limited. They are subject to all sorts of 'ifs' and 'buts' in the small print. And the small print hasn't been written yet, and in fact won't be written until long after the law has been approved.
And the rest of 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.
For years the availability of freely reproducible open-pollinated seedsuitable for sustainable agriculture has been shrinking due to the seed laws, and this new law doesn't address the problem. It just considers the needs of the agri-tech industry and makes it easier for them to market their industrial seed on a big scale.

The real problem is having a starting point that all seeds are prohibited unless officially tested and registered, and then adding some small exceptions as an afterthought.
This is really back to front - testing and registration should be voluntary. Then some people (like massive industrial farmers) who might want the sort of seed that can pass certain types of test - they can choose to use the 'officially registered' seed. And normal people would be free to choose freely what they want to grow from all the myriad of normal seed in the world.
There are also clauses that mean the above concessions could be removed at any time in the future without coming back to the Parliament for a vote.
This law was written for the needs of the globalised farm-seed industry, who supply seed by the ton to industrial farmers. It should not apply at all to seed used by home gardeners and small market growers, who have very different needs.
Freely reproducible seeds are an inalienable part of our heritage. Listing and official certification of vegetable seeds might be helpful for industrial-scale farmers, but it should be a voluntary scheme that people can choose to use if they need it.
So we are calling for registration and testing to be voluntary for all non-GMO, non-patented, non-hybrid seed. That would fix all the problems with the law, while still allowing the giant agri-companies to protect their business the way they want.
But if that does not happen, then the law needs improving - because allowing tiny organisations to supply seed outside the regulations is a good start, but it is not sufficient.
Only in this way will we have a broad supply of quality seed for the needs of home gardeners and small growers.
Do keep signing the petitions if you haven't already, and keep an eye on Real Seeds or Bifurcated Carrots for updates - this isn't over yet.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

URGENT: Save Our Seeds

On May 6th, the EU will vote on new legislation governing plant varieties, proposed by the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers in response to hard lobbying by the globalised agricultural seed industry - Monsanto and its buddies. This legislation will mean that no seed (or other plant reproductive material) can be sold, swapped or given for free to anyone anywhere in the EU unless it is registered on the EU Plant List as an 'approved' variety.

If the legislation passes, it will kill off innumerable heirloom, heritage and amateur varieties. It won't (I believe) impact the varieties already licensed for commercial use, but it will impact the huge number of 'amateur' varieties, all those that breed plants on a small scale at home, all those that forage seed and propagate wild plants, and all the rare seeds being preserved and brought back to cultivation by small businesses. It will mean high costs for seed merchants to put their varieties through rigorous tests to get them on the list - and since the tests are designed around high-output industrial varieties, many are unlikely to be approved anyway. Once a variety is approved, the seller will have to pay an annual fee to keep it that way. Heirloom varieties and other less-popular varieties will undoubtedly be lost. Small seed merchants preserving and supplying rare varieties will undoubtedly not be able to continue. Biodiversity will fall dramatically. Consumer choice will be reduced. Food security will be damaged. With every variety that dies out, the pool of genetic material for breeding future varieties will be diminished. That unique heirloom bean your grandfather gave you will be outlawed - it will be illegal to pass it on to anyone else. There'll be no seeking out local varieties when you move to a new area. There'll be none of the seed-saving and -swapping and -sharing that we growers enjoy so much - unless they're on the EU Plant List. And all this so that agricultural giants can make more money and take yet more control of our food supply.

This legislation flies in the face of nature, which propagates, adapts and evolves freely, constantly creating sub-species and sub-sub-species. It's an attempt by corporations to claim ownership of the plant world, and it's an assault on our right as earth-dwellers to enjoy and interact with the earth's natural world.

I personally grow many unusual and heritage varieties which are at risk; seeds I've saved myself and seeds I've bought from Real Seeds and others - many listed as 'amateur' varieties 'not for commercial exploitation', which Real Seeds must get round by charging 1p per year to join their 'club'. Many of these are my favourite varieties. I have a Caucasian vining spinach plant which I've only ever seen shared informally and sold by one-woman company Backyard Larder. I suspect most of these varieties would quickly become endangered if the legislation passes, and next year I'd have to grow a dramatically different selection.

I'd like to think there's no way this insane law would pass when put to the vote, but Monsanto seems to have ways to get anything it wants. I have had no replies so far to my letters to MEPs and it's simply too important an issue to just wait and see without expressing my opposition.

Whether or not you grow food yourself, this legislation has implications for your food security, the natural world all around you, and thus the future of the planet. PLEASE inform yourselves about this issue and TAKE ACTION.

Here are some links to help you:

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