Future prospects for European crop varieties

Last time I looked at the state of seed availability in Europe and how it got that way: a one-size-fits-all approach that suits industrial growers and their breeders well enough but that leaves gardeners and specialist growers out in the cold. This time, what are they doing about it.

This whole discussion began with the prosecution of the Kokopelli Association in France for selling seeds of unregistered varieties. That provoked disbelief and a note that change was being discussed. So it is. The version I saw of the “Draft Commission Directive establishing the specific conditions under which seed and propagating material of agricultural and vegetable species may be marketed in relation to the conservation in situ and the sustainable use of plant genetic resources through growing and marketing” is due to come into force on 1 April 2007

I shall refrain from the obvious joke.

The provisions of the draft are somewhat complex, and in boiling them down I will almost certainly get something wrong. But in essence, a “conservation variety” or “amateur variety … with no intrinsic value for commercial production” can be sold within a “bio-geographic region” without having to be registered under the previous seed marketing directives. There are many other conditions hedged about, like the colour of the labels and the minimum size of the packages. Two stick out. The total seed sold for each conservation variety shall not exceed 0.1% of the seed of that species used each year in the country concerned. And marketing is limited to the bio-geographic region of origin or adaptation of the variety.

The 0.1% rule is unlikely to be a hindrance. The bio-geographic rule is more problematic. Does it mean that a cabbage-fancier in the north of England will not be allowed to buy seeds of the famous black kale of Tuscany? Would a Tuscan be able to buy Greyhound? As yet, nobody seems to know. What about that “no intrinsic value” clause. Does that mean that a specialist grower of, say, fancy tomatoes will not be able to sell the fruits of her labours legitimately, because they grew from “amateur” seeds of no intrinsic value?

This is not the first time the European Commission has turned its hand to such matters. There was an ill-fated French proposal that sought to take a snapshot of varieties more than, as I recall, 25 years old and allow those to be marketed under less stringent conditions. And there is the blind eye turned regularly towards the sale of unregistered varieties in many countries. The authorities do seem aware that their original intention in regulating the seed market has had some undesired effects on biodiversity and specialty growers.

As Maria Scholten reminded us, many landraces have somehow managed to survive in the further reaches of Europe. There are others too. Like Carlin Pea, a beautiful variety with two-toned flowers, traditionally eaten — in a traditional recipe — on Carlin Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent. In the orchard I used to own there were old unregistered apple varieties, some famous, like Kingston Black and some almost unknown, like Upton Pine and Tom Putt. Perennial trees, of course, last longer than vegetable varieties even with nobody caring for them. The new legislation may permit some of these to be sold again, although given the restrictions I doubt that they will make anyone rich.

But will it allow us to grow new varieties, like Tom Wagner’s wonderful series of tomatoes. Some European gardeners are aware of Green Grape and Green Zebra and seem to think that these too are traditional landrace-type, heirloom varieties. But they are not, they were bred specifically by a dedicated individual, and there are many other similar examples from around the world that could enrich agriculture in Europe. Future efforts will also be needed to adapt the crops available.

The legislation, by setting a limit of 0.1% of total seed sales, effectively admits that this is a tiny problem. It could be ignored, rather than legislated. But that would not remove the threat hanging over the Kokopelli Association and others. So why not simply exempt unregistered varieties completely? Why not have a parallel system, an informal seed sector, if you like, that gives growers access to anything and everything they might want to try?

The draft directive goes some way towards that, by stating the maximum weight of seeds that can be sold as amateur varieties. This will go a long way towards keeping those varieties in the hands of small specialists. But why not extend that idea to all varieties? Those who need certainty could continue to use registered varieties, and pay for the privilege of doing so. We are grown-ups. Why should we not be permitted to grow what we want?

Of course the seed industry has a very dodgy history, full of people stealing one another’s varieties and passing them off as their own. And sharp operators have always sold poor quality seed. But the problem of identity is separate from the problem of quality. Germination and purity requirements are sufficient to protect us from poor quality seed. And as for varietal identity, we live in an age when it would be simplicity itself to compile a public roster of good people and bad. Specialist growers and gardeners are used to taking risks. They are also used to spreading the risks, by growing many varieties of many species. They will cope.

In those bad old days, the seed industry was governed by a motto best summed up as “everything is permitted”. Buyers had to beware.

Quality control, on purity, germination and identify, brought in an era of “everything not forbidden is permitted”. Buyers still had to beware, but not quite so much. And if they wanted to take a risk, they could.

Europe’s system says that “everything not permitted is forbidden,” a subtle but important change. Buyers need have no fear, but nor can they exercise complete freedom of choice.

And now? Despite the draft legislation, I worry that we are just around the corner from “everything not forbidden is compulsory”.

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