Charities know that it is a good idea to forge a bond between those who have and those who have not — the better to make those who have, give. So winsome children and kindly old people show us that we are all part of one big happy family, and families help one another, don’t they? But what if those who are normally the position of having, and giving, become those who need?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that as far as agricultural biodiversity is concerned, Europe is probably more in need of help than anywhere else. Elsewhere, as in Europe, intensive agriculture and monocropping are destroying existing biodiversity. But elsewhere, unlike Europe, farmers, gardeners and ordinary folk who just want to grow themselves a bit of food have a bit of choice. If they can find the variety they want, they can buy it (or obtain it by barter, whatever) and grow it. In Europe that is not legal.
There is a Common Catalogue of registered varieties. If a variety is not registered in the catalogue, it may not be marketed. And marketed means exchanged and given away too, not just sold. That’s the legislation that the Kokopelli Association fell foul of, and many folks simply don’t believe it. But it is true, and has been since the 1960s.
The Common Catalogue does not apply to all edible species, it is true. But it covers almost everything the average person (as opposed to a deep diversity nut) might want to grow. And it is designed to protect consumers. It enshrines the principles of UPOV for the registration and protection of plant varieties. That is, it ensures that you are getting what you pay for. A variety must be distinct, uniform and stable, and in the case of the more important commercial crops must deliver some agronomic benefit, such as yield. There’s a flat fee for registration, which pays for experts to grow it out, make sure it is indeed distinct, uniform and stable, and then grant Plant Breeders Rights so the breeder feels protected; the variety is marketed, and no-one else can multiply and sell it without the breeder’s permission.
There are two problems with this admirable arrangement.
One is the flat fee. It costs as much to register a chocolate-skinned tomato that will appeal to a few of those deep diversity nuts for their home gardens as to register a massive new canning variety that contains 1% more soluble solids and thus will save the tomato paste industry vast gobbets of cash. For the breeder of pan-European commercial varieties the flat fee is a minor annoyance and just one more cost of doing business. For the backyard breeder who happens to have selected a tastier or more colourful tomato and might hope to sell a couple of thousand packets, it is a huge obstacle. As a result, nobody is breeding varieties with the qualities smaller growers want. Instead, the seed companies try to foist the megavarieties onto gardeners and small growers.
The catalogues hymn the fact that this pea variety, for example, matures extremely uniformly, ideal for freezing. Uh huh. Perfect for the pea growers who boast of going from vine to freezer in less than three hours. But if I want frozen peas I am more than happy to go down to the local supermarket and buy them. If I’m growing peas in my garden, I want a few to be ripe each time I go down there, so I can pick and enjoy them directly. Indeed, when I was growing peas, few pods ever made the short trip back to the kitchen intact. That’s the whole point of growing your own peas, after all, to taste their fresh, sun-warmed sweetness straight off the vine.
OK, you say, don’t buy the megavarieties, buy the old peas that hadn’t had all that nasty non-uniformity bred out of them. And that’s where the second problem with the European seed legislation comes into play: its illegal. Because nobody has registered those old varieties.
Back in the 1960s, when they were assembling the Common Catalogue, the authorities gave all the many little seedsmen the opportunity to get their varieties registered. But there was a catch. There could only be one name for each variety. So independent experts (most of them drawn from the seed trade) assessed the rows of varieties and decided whether two varieties were distinct or not. If they weren’t, one of them had to go. Mostly, this was a good thing, because it did get rid of hundreds of synonyms. But it also gave the seed trade the opportunity to abandon some old varieties that weren’t nearly as profitable as the new, registered varieties, and some babies did get thrown out with the bathwater.
One example. An onion called Up-to-date was judged to be the same as an onion called Bedfordshire Champion, and duly consigned to the scrap heap. But in 1948, in a UK Ministry of Agriculture trial of disease resistance, Up-to-date had been one of the varieties most resistant to white rot, while Bedfordshire Champion had been more than somewhat susceptible. So which is true? Are they the same variety, in which case, how come they performed differently in an official trial of disease resistance? Or do they merely look the same? In which case taking Up-to-date off the market robbed small gardeners and possibly organic growers (and maybe even onion breeders) of a source of resistance to one of the most devastating of onion diseases.
Fortunately, someone — The Henry Doubleday Association’s Heritage Seed Library (which I used to run) — had kept Up-to-date alive and so was able to supply seeds for a fresh trial of disease resistance. And the variety was indeed more resistant than others tested. But you still cannot buy it. We know about Up-to-date thanks to a lucky combination of circumstances. we don’t know how many other “synonyms” were discarded that might have had useful properties.
The European and UK authorities often make the point that while the seed legislation rewards breeders, it also protects consumers. But the only consumers it protects are the big boys, the commercial growers who want the qualities breeders are offering them. And the only breeders it protects are those breeding for the big growers. Gardeners and hobby breeders are ignored.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that legislation to protect Plant Breeders Rights is a good thing. But every other country that has implemented such legislation has allowed other systems to continue, even though they may be frowned upon. The consumer is free to buy, or exchange, what ever varieties they like with no more protection that the supplier’s good name (and maybe ordinary consumer protection legislation). that’s true consumer protection.
When academics and researchers go to undeveloped countries and study how their farmers manage agricultural biodiversity, they generally discover the vital importance of something they often label the informal seed sector. In most of Europe, the informal seed sector has been snuffed out of existence by bureaucracy designed to serve only the largest enterprises. I’ll discuss the bureaucratic response in the next article. In the meantime …