How the European Common Catalogue destroys biodiversity

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 …

Help, please.

13 Replies to “How the European Common Catalogue destroys biodiversity”

  1. This system seems downright insane. I can understand making registration(and testing) compulsory for things like industrial chemicals, where pollution and workplace safety are serious concerns, and drugs, where the consumer is generally in a poor situation and is not likely to be able to reasonably evaluate the costs and benefits without a regulatory framework. Seed varieties are an entirely different case.

    The sorts of plant strains most likely to be quashed by this system are the ones least likely to pose any threat to the environment at large; and the people growing them are quite likely to be well informed on the subject. Having a certification process that allows breeders to say “My strain Z has features J,W, and N, and will reliably express them, Common Catalogue certified.” is all well and good. Making that the only legal way to exchange seeds seems absurd.

    A couple of questions for you:

    Are there any particular reasons, economic, social, historical, lobbyist, etc. why Europe has such a legal framework, when other areas don’t?

    Are there any movements afoot to reform this situation?

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. As to your questions, I am not aware of any particular reasons why the system is as it is. But it is of a piece with other kinds of european legislation, which often favours the large producer over the small. It can be seen in the regulations governing abattoirs, for example, where the cost of having a permanent veterinary inspector is acceptable for a massive enterprise going 24 hours a day but is impossible for a small family business that works maybe one day a week. Certainly there is a fascinating topic there for a detailed study.

    There are movements afoot to reform the situation; I’ll be posting about one next week. And in many countries there are small efforts to undermine the restrictions. But, as the French case shows, they are all too easily squashed.

    Work is a bit busy at the moment, but I could attempt to compile a list of European seed exchanges and the like, if there’s a demand.

  3. Here’s a comment from Franz Konig:

    I will be looking forward to see your analysis of the bureaucratic response but I would like to warn you that a long piece on bureaucratic solutions may be a waste of time: the future EU Directive on conservation varieties, in the process of being finalized soon, can only be summarized very briefly: wrong wrong wrong.

    1. In the wrong committee (Standing Committee on Seed – this should have been Conservation or Agrobiodiversity. Officals dealing with seed certification may not have a good understanding of what landraces are and in what context they are grown. Is there consultation with the Plant Genetic Resources community?

    2. With wrong criteria: UPOV standards of Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability, requirements of labeling, seed purity – imagine this procedure for a farmer in the Alps who wants to give some of his Dinkel variety that he has inherited from his father to a neighbour: he will have to clean his seed, label it with an EU label, package it and even seal it!

    Is help possible?

    There is one word in the EU buraucratic jargon which offers a solution and that is derogation. Instead of more regulation areas of exemption are needed, enclaves for the informal seed sector. The draft directive “provides for some derogations” – where it should have provided for substantial derogations. Leave landraces out of this directive altogether – for example.

    The question is going to be which party will demand more derogations (and when). I hope we can discuss this further.

  4. What a fantastic post and a very eloquent summary of the stupidity we are currently lumbered with. I’ve always assumed the reason for the system was simply ignorance and failure of imagination on the part of those who drafted it, however worthy their intentions may have been … but that’s just my assumption.

    Anyway, I’m delighted to have found your blog … you’re doing great work here.


  5. This is a great post! I posted about this last year, but you explained it a lot better than I did.

    Rebsie just told me about your blog and pointed me to the comments you left on Daughter of the Soil. I’m not sure why it took me so long to find you. I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog.

    I live in the Netherlands and also trade seeds on my blog, as an individual like Garden of Eden. I hope you will add me to your seed exchange list.

  6. I just discovered this “Common Catalog” stuff today when searching for information on tall varieties of wheat. It is stunning. I’m an American living in Slovakia in a small village. I’m used to feeling as though, in certain respects, I am living in a police state compared to the U.S., but this is really over-the-top!
    I’m sure I’ll get arrested someday for giving a neighbor heirloom collard or okra seeds that I bring over from trips home to the U.S.

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