I didn’t realize it at the time, but that meeting in Vicenza was part of an EU-funded project called Farm Seed Opportunities. So the EU funds a project to explore ways of overcoming the strict rules for the marketing of seeds — which the EU sets. This isn’t the only example of a lack of joined up thinking; there are the subsidies to the tobacco farmers ranged against the budget for no-smoking campaigns, and probably others too. But I digress.
The Directive on Conservation Varieties is currently in its 11th draft, and is due to be discussed again by the EU today, 9 November, as Item 5 on the agenda of the Standing Committee on Seeds and Propagating Material for Agriculture, Horticulture and Forestry, an element of the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General. I think one intention of the Vicenza meeting was to sound out Italian players with a view to making their views known in today’s discussions.
So what are those views? I’m afraid I don’t know. There seems to be a general desire to see farmers and others allowed to market seeds of varieties, balanced by a worry that any legislation may offer big seed companies a low-cost route to marketing their varieties. Some say the maximum amounts of seed prescribed in the draft are too low, which seems to play into the hands of the big seed companies. Is the answer a tighter definition of “conservation” and “amateur” varieties, one that big players would not be able to meet? Or is the answer to reduce quantities still further, so that there is no incentive for the big players to exploit these directives?
Noble farmers experimenting with and exchanging their cultural and agricultural inheritance form a crucial part of the narrative surrounding many objections to Europe’s existing seed laws. If that’s true, then small quantities should be no obstacle. Indeed, they should promote the kind of experimentation and adaptation that lie at the heart of farmer conservation, as they bulk up the seed to make commercial use worthwhile.
Another aspect of the argument around these ideas is that somehow there is a clear and present need to regulate the market for all kinds of seed. Why? I believe that ordinary consumer-protection laws are definitely sufficient as far as seed quality (germination, health) are concerned, and that they could probably cope with questions of identity as well. And for small quantities, where the downside — for incomes and food production alike — is more or less trivial, that ought to be enough.
I’ll be interesting to see how today’s discussions go; in the meantime, civil disobedience seems to be the only alternative.
While we’re on the subject, BBC Radio 4 is airing a two part series called Save our Seeds with the estimable Jonathon Porritt doing his thing. The first programme, on Wednesday 7 November, “explores the ancient origins of our agricultural biodiversity and how scientists are working to gather and secure as many plant varieties as possible.” Part 2, on Wednesday 14 November, “examines the controversial fallout of the Green Revolution and the inherent danger of single variety crops.” Ho hum.