EU Parliament Rejects Draft Seed Regulation

Writing this blog is a great way to experience the truism that policy-making is a marathon, not a sprint. Or, as we say in German, you have to be ready to drill holes into thick slates of wood (weird expression much?) What I want to say is – the next episode of the story of the new EU seed regulation (which we talked about here and here) just occurred, and it shows the power of public opinion as much as the need for adequate communication and stakeholder involvement. But let me back up for a second.

How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?
How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?

Remember the issue? The new EU seed regulation was set to unify the current 12 different directives that concern intellectual property rights on ‘plant reproductive material’ into one, but was thought to give undue power to larger seed corporations by requiring costly and inconvenient registration processes and prohibiting the sale or exchange of non-registered seeds. This gave rise to massive public protests to preserve heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Campaigns such as Free Seeds interpreted the regulations the following way: “Older and rarer varieties will soon be declared illegal. Brightly speckled tomatoes, purple potatoes, the tasty apples we ate as children: these could soon vanish from our plates and gardens. While consumers, horticulturists and farmers are increasingly restricted by diminishing biodiversity, the agricultural industries can finally breathe a sigh of relief: with biodiversity wiped out, all that remains is regulated monoculture, which they can serve up to the people. The EU seed regulations allow for the concentration of seed production in the hands of even fewer multinationals. This would put an end to many indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruit and grains.

As I wrote then, the revisions of the draft proposal actually addressed some of the concerns, creating exceptions for niche species, but questions about the concrete application of the law still remained, and apparently were not sufficiently discussed within EU decision-making bodies, while NGO lobbying efforts stayed strong.  In the end, the Parliament voted to kill the regulation by 650 votes to 15 after the Commission refused to take it back and rewrite the text.

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Bowman vs. Monsanto: Upheld.

The decision that has been eagerly awaited by a great number of people might disappoint just as many. I covered the Bowman vs. Monsanto case earlier when the oral hearings were made, and commented that it didn’t seem to look too good for Mr. Bowman’s case. This impression has turned out to be true: in a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court this morning decided to uphold the lower court’s ruling and ruled against Vernon Bowman, declaring that he violated Monsanto’s intellectual property rights by regrowing second-generation seeds.

What are farmers allowed to do with their soybeans?
Image by Carol Von Canon, via Flickr CC.

For a more in-depth analysis of the background, feel free to revisit my original post, but here is the short version: Vernon Bowman is a farmer from Indiana who bought soybean seeds from a grain elevator (which is not the usual way to get seeds, since they will be a mix of varieties and thus of heterogeneous quality), planted them, and then used Monsanto’s Roundup Ready pesticide to kill off all other non-GMO seeds, leaving the Roundup-resistant ones to be planted. This is extremely unconventional, but a great example for a patent-law case study. Under normal patent law, there is the Doctrine of Patent Exhaustion that lets you use the patented item any way you desire once you buy it – including to resell it. Once a company has sold its item, it thus cannot  claim patent infringement on subsequent uses (and owners) of that item.

Technically, that is what happened: other farmers bought Monsanto’s seeds, grew them, sold them to the grain elevator, and Bowman purchased them. What was in question now is whether Mr. Bowman was free to use the second-generation seed anyway he liked, including to plant them.

According to the Supreme Court, the answer is no.

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What’s Happening to EU Seed Diversity?!

In a way it’s almost funny – all this time a lot of the food policy community’s attention is drawn to seed laws in the US, dissecting Supreme Court cases and hidden Congressional amendments, while at the same time the European Commission is drafting what seems to be at least equally harsh legislation with a much smaller public outcry. Or maybe I have just been oblivious?

If planned EU legislation goes through, vegetables might soon look much more uniform than this bounty of heirloom carrots.
Image by Flickr-user brotherlywalks, via Flickr CC.

Either way, come May 6th, the European Commission is going to vote on a draft directive that bodes poorly for seed diversity, and there seems little the public can do other than petition their EU Commissioners vote against it. The Arche Noah petition has 170,000 signatures so far.

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