Food (Policy) For Thought

A recent grad's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!

EU Seed Diversity – The Final Word


About a week ago, I wrote about the threats to EU seed diversity possibly contained in a sweeping law that required the mandatory registration of all commercially traded seeds, often at considerable financial and administrative effort involved.

The European seed market is facing a big reform.
Image by Flickr-user this lyre lark, via Flickr CC.

Today, the European Commission actually presented its proposal for the first time and, lo and behold, there were some last-minute additions introduced that do take care of some of the concerns voiced.

In particular, paragraph 2 of the last proposal draft covers derogations, including:

Derogation on niche market plant reproductive material

In addition, proportionate and sustainable rules for small scale activities concerning plant reproductive material, which is adapted to local conditions, and made available on the market in small quantities, should be established. Such varieties should be exempted from the requirements on registration and making available on the market. This material is defined as niche market plant reproductive material. The exemption should concern e.g. farmer-breeders or gardener-breeders whether being professional operators or not. However, some basic rules on labelling and traceability of the material should be laid down. In order to prevent an abuse of the exemption the material should only be made available on the market in a defined size of packages.”

This is further clarified in Article 2:

This Regulation shall not apply to plant reproductive material:
(a) intended solely for testing or scientific purposes;
(b) intended solely for breeding purposes;
(c) intended solely for, and maintained by, gene banks, organisations and networks of conservation of genetic resources, or persons belonging to those organisations or networks;
(d) exchanged in kind between persons other than professional operators.”

While this is good news for seed banks and swaps between private persons, I am not sure how this wording sees the swapping of seeds between local farmers – they are clearly “professional operators”, but would they qualify as pursuing “on-farm conservation” of genetic resources?

There is more information on derogations in Article 36:

“1. Article 14(1) [requiring mandatory registration] shall not apply to plant reproductive material where all of the following conditions are fulfilled:

(a) it is made available on the market in small quantities by persons other than
professional operators, or by professional operators employing no more than
ten persons and whose annual turnover or balance sheet total does not exceed
EUR 2 million;
(b) it is labelled with the indication ‘niche market material’.”

So there is a certain leeway for small-scale producers, but clearly the EU is trying to find a balance on where producer protection stops and regulatory oversight is necessary.

The new draft also addresses old traditional varieties, as follows:

Old traditional varieties. Concerning old varieties, such as conservation varieties (including landraces), or so called ‘amateur varieties’, less stringent requirements should continue to be laid down in view of promoting their on farm conservation and use as currently regulated under the Directives 2008/62/EC and 2009/145/EC. The varieties will continue to be registered, however, on the basis of an ‘officially recognised description’ which shall be recognised – but not produced – by the competent authorities.” (p. 8)

In addition, the press release stresses that the use of seeds in private gardens, and the private sale of seeds in small quantities, will not fall under the scope of the regulation,  that old traditional varieties and heterogenous material will only be subject to “light registration rules” (and are exempt from the testing requirements), and that micro-enterprises are generally exempt from registration fees.

So, were all concerns addressed? It depends; some of the actual adjustments are only delegated to the Commission, which is then tasked to “adopt delegated acts accordingly”, but these specifics will be decided behind closed doors. In addition, the changes don’t reach as far as was demanded by civil society (e.g., that no registration of plant varieties that don’t have intellectual property rights attached to them is mandatory). However, this draft already looks much better than what was discussed previously – it seems civil society has been (to a certain extent) heard! Now, the legislative debate moves to the European Parliament and the Council – the reform is intended to become law only in 2016.

Were you following the seed diversity debate? Do you think it was much ado about nothing, or that only the protest movement ensured that the current draft is as reasonable as it is?


Author: Janina

I am a grad student of food policy and could talk the entire day about sustainable food systems - but in my free time, I love to travel, read, learn (everything. all the time.), and discover the best vegetarian foodie treats wherever in the world I currently am.

14 thoughts on “EU Seed Diversity – The Final Word

  1. Thank you for this update. It’s not clear to me why seed varieties should be regulated at all. Well, I suppose it’s to protect growers against fraud. But wouldn’t the free market do that? As in, a seed company would get a bad reputation. Other than anti-fraud, are these regulations about protecting a few huge companies?

    • According to the EU Commission, it’s about guaranteeing certain quality standards both to growers and to the final consumers. As in, you wouldn’t want to find out that your whole field that you planted was planted with tampered-with seeds that spread a disease or something equivalent, I guess. I suppose the argument is that the spread of seeds could affect our environment and thus all of us, so there might be the need for some regulation from that angle? But I agree that it seems to limit competition and market entry, thus protecting the big players. Keep in mind though that there have been around 70 acts in the past that have already regulated much of these issues, and the EU argument is that the reform is making it actually less bureaucratic and more streamlined than before (not to argue that the status quo is the way to go, but just as a reference point).

      • How interesting. Do you agree with the EU on their ‘less bureaucratic’ point?

        I’m thinking that for domesticated animals (livestock, pets, lab animals) rules are in place that seem to work all right. If you buy a puppy that’s registered with the Great Dane Society, raise it an breed from it, you’re going to get Great Danes. Otoh, I’ve purchased seeds from which fruit grew to completely the wrong size and shape. At least one of my neighbours on the allotment site believed that fruit shape was influenced by the parent plant having outcrossed, but he was mistaken. Crossbred fruit would look fine, until the next generation.

        So I see what you mean. A farmer could sow a whole field of fraudulently ‘certified’ seed, but then get a rag-bag of worthless plants.

      • I have too little knowledge of the system before to have a strong opinion, but it seems that at least now varieties registered in one country are ‘legal’ in all of the EU. From what I understand, that hasn’t been the case before, or at least different countries had very different registration systems in place and it was a mess.

  2. Janiana, Thank you so much for this amazing synopsis. My fear is that every new legislation slowly tightens the noose around the small holders and sustainable agriculture partitioners, even if the changes are incremental. The movement is towards protecting the larger corporations. As is entirely evident in the Press Release, this entire policy shift is about encouraging and supporting trade in seeds internationally. Yet another shortsighted move that will neglect the rights and undermine the livelihoods of small sustainable farmers both in the EU and outside it.

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  7. Hi Janina. Thank you for a good analysis, the original document is certainly a pain to get through and your clarifications have been very helpful. However, even though the most obvious concerns have been addressed in the final proposal, I would stop short at calling it ‘reasonable’, as it appears to still still favour the further concentration of seed production among a small number of players. I drew on your blog a bit to write a post (, please let me know what you think!

    • Hey Martina, I was just reading your post, and am impressed by your analysis – I wholeheartedly agree with your argument about the two-tiered agricultural system and this arbitrary division between ‘niche markets’ and the big commercial interests. I do also find that the current draft seems more like a band-aid solution to address civil society concerns than a full plan to introduce the protection of biodiversity in our European agricultural system. In that extent, I am grateful that community organizations were actually able to mobilize as much as they finally did, since in retrospect the draft could have still been much worse than it is if you compare it to versions that were floated only weeks ago. But I agree that this doesn’t necessarily make it a good one.
      Looking forward to more conversations between European foodie grad students, I’m glad I found your blog!

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