The reform of the EU legislation on seed marketing has received a lot of heat over the past few months. NGO’s have criticized the commission’s draft proposal as threatening old seed varieties. Some of their concerns have been addressed in the official proposal but they feel it is not enough to prevent the ongoing loss of biodiversity in agriculture.
By Marie-Josée Kelly and Isabelle Gheldolf
He carries out his research in a small and quiet rural town outside of Mariager, in Northern Denmark, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His property is warm and welcoming, it is surrounded by gardens where he crossbreeds plant species. Kittens roam around barns that are filled with rare varieties of wheat.
Anders Borgen holds a PhD in Agriculture–he has 20 years of research experience in organic seed production as well as organic farming.
The unusual varieties of seeds that Borgen produces are heterogenous in their genetic makeup. He works mainly with cereals, which he grows and supplies flour producer Niels Foged with.
There was uncertainty concerning how his work may be effected in the coming years, in light of the EU Commission’s draft proposal on seed marketing and production, released in November 2012. The initial text made no exceptions for micro-breeders meaning he might be forced to register his seeds under strict requirements.
A game of give and take
On May 6th, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, Tonio Borg, proposed an animal and plant health package that should “modernize, simplify and strengthen” the agri-food chain legislation in response to the recent horse meat scandal. Borg proposes to reduce the current body of 70 pieces of legislation to 5.
Anders Borgen feels that although the Commission has been receptive to external pressure to amend the proposal, there is still much room left for improvement.
“This reform is awful, but it is a very big step for compromise,” he says. “They’ve listened to both the seed industry and civil society. It is a reform in the right direction.”
From earth to table
Niels Foged, operates Falslevgård Mølle, a family business which has been producing organic flour since 2008. His production may be threatened if his seed supplier can not live up to the legislation. Over the past five years, his business has gained popularity across Denmark, and his products are now sold in various markets all over the country.
Frits Gundahl, Foged’s brother-in-law, runs the Falslevgård Mølle stand at Ingerslev Market, in Aarhus, in his spare time and feels it’s an important movement to support.
“Many young people today are increasingly aware of what they are eating and they want organic food,” says Gundahl. “We produce from earth to table,” he continued, ”all chains of the production are in our hands.”
According to Gundahl, it is the flavour that these old seed varieties produce that keep his customers coming back for more.
The price of biodiversity
The proposal starts out by declaring that all seeds are illegal. Through a series of procedures for testing, certifying and registration, seeds can be approved and therefore become legal.
The registration procedure is, for some small producers, too costly, which prevents them from entering the seed market. The market is currently dominated by big seed multinationals like Monsanto and Syngenta.
“For instance, I produce purple wheat,” says Borgen. “The market for purple wheat is so small that I will not have my variety approved because it is not profitable.”
“The profit does not cover the expenses for testing,” explains Anders Borgen, “Big companies don’t breed these varieties because the market is too small.”
Although the proposal makes less strict requirements for these varieties, seed savers still fear that some variety will be lost.
“There is a price for biodiversity and that is the cost of registering your seeds,” says the spokesperson of the Austrian seed savers organization, Arche Noah, Pierre Sultana.
Garlich Von Essen, Secretary General of the European Seed Association, which represents the European seed industry, does not share this fear.
“If you look at the EU common catalogue of seed varieties it contains over 5000 different varieties of maize,” he says, “I don’t think the genetic base is smaller than it has been 80 years ago.”
Sultana strongly disputes Von Essen’s view by arguing that biodiversity has actually declined in the past century.
“Biodiversity is much broader than what they offer in that catalogue and what the industry sells,” he says.
A study from the UN food and Agriculture Organisation shows that 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. Since 1900, there has been a 75% decline in plant diversity as farmers prefer homogeneous varieties that create bigger yields.
Diversity makes seeds stronger
The advantage of growing heterogenous varieties derives from their genetic pool. Certain farmers actively seek these diverse seeds because of their higher resistance to disease, which eliminates the need for pesticides, and because they are more adaptable to climate change.
Niels Foged switched from conventional farming to organic farming in the late 1990s. He felt there were too many chemicals going into food and at the same time saw it as a duty to protect the environment.
“My yield is not as high as it was with conventional farming, but what I harvest now has more nutrients and it tastes better,” says Foged.
Karl Tolstrup, a consultant from the Danish Center of food and agriculture at Aarhus University, says it is a dilemma: “If you make the new law less restrictive, you might have more diversity, but the farmers might loose some security concerning their yields.”
The modern seed varieties that do live up to the criteria produce bigger yields under less intensive labour, through the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
“Nowadays, breeders try to make modern varieties that are as homogenous as possible. When you sow out the seeds the results are going to be very reliable,” says Tolstrup.
Bruno Henry de Frahan, an agricultural economic professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, explains that “often activists forget that it is the consumer, in this case, the farmer, demand that drives the market.”
“The seed industry produces what the farmers want,” says Von Essen, “The modern European farmer is not looking for heterogenous material because it does not make sense for them. For example, if you buy a pack of six Granny Smith apples, you expect them all to be granny smith and not one to be a Golden delicious.”
Farmers seek security
Currently there are two criteria that seeds must live up to: DUS (distinctiveness, uniformity and stability) which is comparable to a passport and VCU (value for cultivation and use) which describes it’s performance. These two criteria combined are called the Official Recognized Description (ORD).
Garlich Von Essen says this procedure protects the farmer’s consumer right.
“The criteria are a product description. A professional farmer needs to be sure that what he buys is what is described on the label.”
Karl Tolstrup agrees: “The criteria offer security so the farmer is certain of what he buys: in this case, that the seeds are stable so the crops don’t change from year to year.”
The security measure is a spillover from the recent horse meat scandal, where foods were advertised as containing beef as well as undeclared horse meat. The proposal should “ensure a safe food chain,” says Tonio Borg.
The draft proposal put forward that the criteria would apply to all seeds, but through excessive protests from seed activists, this was altered in the final version of the proposal released in early May.
Now, the proposal lays down “less stringent requirements” for old varieties of seeds which means they do not have to live up to these criteria. These requirements still have yet to be defined.
Activists groups, like Arche Noah, have been at the center of the movement.
Arche Noah’s spokesperson in Brussels, Pierre Sultana, believes this exception is a step in the right direction, but remains problematic because it is obligatory.
Anders Borgen shares his opinion. “Farmers should have the option to buy certified and non-certified seed. Not all seeds should live up to these demands.”
He believes old varieties should be entirely excluded from the legislation because “they are part of our common heritage and therefore we all own them.”
Everything depends on the market demand
The ongoing internal struggle in the agricultural sector stems from the difficulty of striking a balance between preserving biodiversity and ensuring a stable and reliable food supply.
“Everything rests on the market demand. At the moment the market is very influenced by companies who provide homogenous seeds,” says Karl Tolstrup.
“Time goes by and there is a chance that old or heterogenous varieties will be pushed out of the market because there is no demand for it. But we have gene banks that preserve old and heterogenous varieties. And it depends on the gene banks that these varieties still can exist,” he says.
The legislation is being debated in the Council of ministers and the European Parliament under the co-decision procedure. The new seed law is expected to come into effect in 2016.