Seed Regulation: How much is enough?

Earlier this year we posted about how EU Regulations destroy agricultural biodiversity and proposed rules to allow the marketing of European traditional varieties. Eliseu Bettencourt, a colleague with a close interest, said then that he didn’t have enough time to intervene in the discussion. Now, he says, he has a chance. Which would be kind of dull except that he’s seen the very latest drafts of the documents …

The post of 19th February 2007 refers to 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”, supposedly due to come into force on 1st April 2007. The Directive did indeed materialize as the writer of the post so rightly guessed then, though he even refrained from the obvious joke.

I guess the writer was referring to the draft document of May 2006, which bore that title. According to the drafts I have had access to later, in February 2007, that document was sub-divided intro three different documents, respectively:

  • [Commission Directive] or [Council Regulation] providing for certain derogations, in the framework of plant genetic resources, for acceptance of vegetable landraces and varieties and for marketing of seed of those landraces and varieties;
  • [Commission Directive] or [Council Regulation] providing for conditions for marketing of fodder plant seed mixtures which are naturally adapted to local and regional conditions and threatened by genetic erosion;
  • [Commission Directive] or [Council Regulation] providing for certain derogations for acceptance of agricultural landraces and varieties which are naturally adapted to the local and regional conditions and threatened by genetic erosion and for marketing of seed and seed potatoes of those landraces and varieties.

The final documents can thus take the form of either a Commission Directive or a Council Regulation1; that detail has not yet been decided. A few alterations were introduced to the new drafts although, in my opinion, they are kind of cosmetic changes, more in the form rather than in the matter.

The first one changes the limit of the 0.1% rule to: 0.5% of the seed of the same species used in that Member State in one growing season, or a quantity necessary to sow 20 ha, whichever is the greater quantity (in the case of vegetable landraces); 4% of the total weight of the seed mixtures marketed yearly in the Member State. However, for the components, if such quantities are not sufficient to sow 20 ha, the quantity needed for such an area may be authorised (in the case of seed mixtures); 0.5% of the seed of the same species used in that Member State in one growing season, or a quantity necessary to sow 20 ha, whichever is the greater quantity. However, for the species field pea, wheat, barley, maize, potato, swede rape and sunflower, the percentage mentioned above is reduced to 0.3 % (in the case of agricultural landraces and varieties).

Considering vegetable landraces, 20 ha seems to me to be a considerable area. By contrast, if we think of agricultural landraces and varieties, such as cereals, that seems to be too little. Besides, it seems that some more catches exist.

Let’s have a look at the proposed Directive (or Regulation) titles. Did you notice that, in the case of “fodder plant seed mixtures” and “agricultural landraces and varieties” it says that it is applicable to mixtures and landraces “which are naturally adapted to the local and regional conditions and threatened by genetic erosion”? Does that mean that the future Directive or Regulation applies only to those “fodder plant seed mixtures” and “agricultural landraces and varieties” that are naturally adapted to the local and regional conditions and threatened by genetic erosion?

On vegetable landraces and varieties, the specific text refers to “landraces and varieties which have been traditionally grown in particular localities and regions and threatened by genetic erosion”. Is that a difference that doesn’t make a difference? Or is it different enough to make a difference?

To my mind, it is one thing if Member States have to ensure that “they are naturally adapted to the local conditions of one or more regions” and quite another thing to ensure that they are “landraces and varieties which have been traditionally grown in particular localities and regions”. Besides, if a landrace has been traditionally grown in a particular locality isn’t it, after all, naturally adapted to the local conditions? Just asking …

The three draft texts refer to “and threatened by genetic erosion” as a substantive requirement that “fodder plant seed mixtures”, “agricultural landraces and varieties” and “vegetable landraces and varieties”, have to comply with in order to be accepted as a conservation variety. In all the texts, genetic erosion is broadly defined as the “loss of genetic diversity between and within populations or varieties of the same species over time, or reduction of the genetic basis of a species due to human intervention or environmental change”.

So, a question springs up: to what degree has the plant species to be subject to genetic erosion to be accepted as a “conservation variety”. Does size matter?

Does it have to be a lot of genetic erosion? A little genetic erosion? Traces of genetic erosion? And who assesses and rates the degree of genetic erosion?

Luckily there are many examples of landraces that have survived in many different environments and for many different reasons. However, as many they might be, they can never be too many, and it is urgent to protect and conserve all of them. For a quixotic reason? Certainly not. It is important, even vital I would say, for a very pragmatic and materialistic reason: they are valuable! Because environmental sustainability is not an option, it is a necessity! It is an insurance for the future survival of humankind.

It seems to me a pity that, for an apparently simple matter like the conservation of a patrimony so vital for food security, so many years have passed by while the discussion still goes on into details such as the size and colour of labels while this valuable asset is disappearing more rapidly than the endless discussions.

While the patient dies they continue to discuss the cure!!!

Time to ask again: How much is enough? How many more discussions do we need? How many more regulatory measures do we need?

One thing is for sure: if the Commission keeps this breakneck pace of discussions we will not need any regulations because there will be nothing left to regulate. The only thing remaining will be labels of a certain size and colour but no seed bags to tie them to.

  1. The difference being that a “Regulation” is an EU decision that directly binds all Member States and citizens in the whole of the EU, while a “Directive” is to be transferred into national law through the Member States Parliaments and Governments. The draft new EU Constitution EU proposes renaming “Directives” as “Framework laws” and “Regulations” as “Laws”. Clear? []

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