The EU has proposed a whole new set of legislation amounting to 70 enormous legal texts governing the European Union’s food chain. If you like gardening, or work in horticulture or forestry, watch out...
On Monday 6 May a draconian new law was put before the European Commission, which creates new powers to classify and regulate all plant life anywhere in Europe. The law – an EU Regulation that cannot be varied by individual countries – starts from the premise that all vegetables, fruit and trees must be officially registered before they can be reproduced or distributed.
New European law will have a draconian effect on gardens and gardeners.
This obviously is a major restriction on seed availability, as there are all sorts of costs in both time and money dealing with the bureaucracy of a new central EU Plant Variety Agency. So where does it leave gardeners and nurseries in Britain?
Amateur gardeners develop their knowledge through observation and experiment, working rather like scientists. Through experience they become experts at what works in their garden: practice, theory, practice – the essence of scientific method.
In Britain we have many organisations aiming to pool the knowledge gained by gardeners over generations. Two of these are the Soil Association and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), with the RHS laying more emphasis on scientific methods. Now both are involved in the debate about genetic modification (GM), and the Soil Association (known mostly for its “organic” label) is playing a valuable role in opposing the European Union's attempts to control seed production in the interests of big companies.
A number of different certification bodies in Britain carry out the inspections and paperwork to ensure that organic standards are being met (see Box). The Soil Association is one of only a very few of these bodies whose standards are higher than the EU minimum, not just in relation to GM but also animal welfare and nature conservation – and is now instrumental in resistance to the draconian seed legislation proposed by the EU.
The EU has proposed a whole new set of legislation amounting to 70 enormous legal texts governing the European Union’s food chain. Part of this, the "Plant Reproductive Material Law" regulates all plants. It contains immediate restrictions on vegetables and woodland trees.
Under the new law, it will immediately be illegal to grow, reproduce or trade any vegetable seed or tree that has not been tested and approved by the new EU Plant Variety Agency, who will make a list of approved plants. Moreover, an annual fee must also be paid to the Agency to keep them on the list, and if the fee is not paid, the plants cannot be produced.
Using words and phrases such as “sustainable” and “food security”, EU legislators hijack language to pretend their proposals address these issues, when they are really designed to benefit big business, such as Monsanto, at the expense of smaller independent companies.
By introducing expensive registration the legislation is likely to put many smaller seed producers out of business and is a major threat to seed diversity and, in consequence, to the breadth of the gene pool necessary for the breeding and development of seeds to cope with changing conditions.
The proposed regulation is laying down the future framework for the largest companies to trace down the intellectual property rights of seeds, putting in place a system that forces companies to keep records of their seeds, what has been planted and where, what has been sold, to whom and how. The regulation forms a perfect basis for controlling seeds that are patented. That is really its sole purpose, to benefit capitalists not workers.
The EU Commission says the regulation is needed to “tidy up” existing law. In practice it will mean that the globalised agribusiness seed industry will have EU laws to cope with gene patents and plant patents, and will be able to register “their” industrial varieties or genes safely and securely before selling them in large quantities to industrial farmers. This will effectively prevent the age-old practice of farmers saving the seed for their own use or sale to others, unless they pay a royalty fee.
At present, companies have to register seeds in each country where they want to sell them. Under the new proposed law, procedures valid in one member state would automatically be recognised across the European Union. The European Commission says this would make the process of registering varieties faster and “more conducive to innovation”. At a stroke a country’s seed sovereignty, our ability to have some control over our seeds, would be removed.
The ash dieback debacle, where EU legislation prevented Britain from stopping the import of diseased saplings, shows what can happen when a country loses control over its plant life. But there are other drawbacks, too.
The new annual registration fees would also be prohibitive for small companies, pushing them out of the EU market altogether. Older seed varieties and older established European seeds companies would find it very hard to compete against the larger corporations, which prioritise the mass production of monoculture seed varieties at the expense of diversity.
A line in the proposed EU regulation calls for “more flexibility” toward so-called professional operators. It entitles the seed industry to carry out the necessary examination for registration, inspections, sampling and analysis of plant reproductive material for certification themselves – but under official supervision from authorities.
True to form
From its inception, the EU has operated for the benefit of big business. Back in 1983, writer Lawrence D Hills noted in A Month-by-Month Guide to Organic Gardening that it was no longer possible to recommend varieties for flavour and garden qualities and be sure that they would be available to readers by the time the book is in print.
Even then, it was already “an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £1000, to sell or even to catalogue vegetable varieties not on the National Lists or the EEC [forerunner of the EU] Common Catalogue”.
The results were catastrophic. “Since 1973 we have been losing vegetable varieties by the hundred every six months. In June 1978 we lost 874 varieties, including the Pot Leek, traditionally grown by Durham miners on allotments fed with pit-pony manure, Market King tomatoes, the thin-skinned greenhouse favourite of the 1930’s, and Victoria spinach, as British as Early Albert rhubarb.”
Hills also pointed out that Britain lost some 600 varieties deemed to be “synonyms”, that is, too similar to be worth distinguishing, even though they often vary in qualities such as flavour, disease resistance and slowness to run to seed. Such things matter to gardeners, “rather than to commercial growers, who want weight, a long shelf life, thick skins for long journeys to the supermarket, and bright colour to show through polythene prepacks”.
Hills noted that the driving force for the European regulations came from multinational companies, since the laws allowed horticultural and agricultural seeds to be patented – earning royalty payments. But patents are expensive to win and to police, time-consuming to obtain, and in the case of plants the applicant must demonstrate that the variety is “uniform, stable and distinct”.
No wonder multinationals – who have the resources to cope with it – like this patenting regime. And no wonder the multinationals like the EU’s latest plans.
Initial opposition to the plans has focused on the impact on what are called the “heritage seeds” and as a concession the registration rules will be relaxed for this niche market. If the company employs less than 10 people then they will be exempt from the rules. But Britain has a number of long-established seed companies such as Sutton Seeds and Thompson and Morgan which employ a fair few more than 10 but who would be “small fry” compared to the multinationals such as Monsanto.
The legislation is now being discussed and amended by member states and the European parliament. The Commission estimates that the legislation will enter into force in 2016. It used to be said in jest “they will legislate to sell the air we breathe”. Well, the EU is moving in that direction. Will it next try to stop plants from seeding themselves? ■