A workers' cooperative growing food on London's edge in the Lea Valley

Seed law update

This month has spelled bad news for the freedoms of growers to develop and share seeds. Internationally the G8 has been talking about extending the ‘New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition’, while closer to home the European Commission has adopted a controversial and depressing proposal on seed regulation.

Under the EU’s ‘Plant Reproductive Material law’ a host of proposals have been made that create new powers to classify and regulate all plant life in Europe. These include criminalising the cultivation, reproduction and exchange of any vegetable seed that has not been tested and approved by a new ‘EU Plant Variety Agency’.

In response to voracious public opposition, the commission introduced a last minute amendment that will maintain a category of ‘niche’ unregistered seeds which individuals & small organisations will be able to grow and supply or sell. However the catch is that any company with more than 10 employees will be banned from producing them.

This means that new varieties for small-scale production can only be legally developed by organisation with fewer than 10 employees, which will inevitably lead to a significant reduction in the professional development of varieties for gardeners and organic growers.

Similarly, the New Alliance have signed ‘cooperation frameworks’ with the governments of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania which make a series of legislative changes to protect the property rights of big agribusiness investing in African agriculture. These include similar restrictions on seed development and exchange by small-scale growers.

From the perspective of food sovereignty these are foolish moves. Controlling the seeds that can be developed and exchanged will lead to a reduction of biodiversity, and a corresponding loss of resilience to changing circumstances that diversity affords. Furthermore, it threatens the livelihoods of small-scale growers who often rely on saved and exchanged seed to reduce their costs and develop varieties suitable to local micro climates.

If there is any positive news in this story it is that outspoken public opposition forced significant last minute concessions on the EU’s proposals. Exactly how these policies will be implemented remains to be seen but there is no doubt that more public opposition can only be a good thing.


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