New EU Seed Legislation: Threat to local varieties, beneficial to patents and repressive technologies

A newly awaited revision of EU legislation regarding the seed trade appears to be a real threat to the preservation and trade of local varieties, which culminates even towards banning their use. The proposed rules favor large seed companies through the expansion of intellectual property rights and the promotion of new technologies to control all commercial plant varieties.

Maintaining diversity? Not quite

Without it becoming apparent to the public, the European Commission has begun to revise the EU legislation on the seed trade in 2008. Up until a few years ago, trading of unregistered seed varieties (local, traditional and self produced) in most countries did not fall under any effective control, and constituted a relatively small market share, without much competition and was traded without commercial intentions. In June 2008, the European Commission presented a Directive (the 2008/62/EC) on the preservation of specific varieties, which resulted in a set of directives (such as 2009/145/EK), applied differently in each EU country. Their role is to regulate the movement of commercial animal breeds, plant varieties adapted to local conditions and those at risk of extinction. The EU Member States will soon be forced to incorporate the relevant directives into national law.

However, although titled: “for the maintenance of diversity”, the directives have not been consistent so far with their purpose, i.e. to stop the loss of agricultural biodiversity and to simplify legislation. As noted, although it has allowed entrance to local varieties in official catalogues, it has also created too many bureaucratic obstacles. Three conditions are considered as particularly absurd and are expected to mean a very high risk of banning unregistered varieties: the need to demonstrate the importance of the variety, the restriction and distribution of local seeds only in their regions of origin and the quantitative restriction of crop varieties in proportion to the commercial varieties.

The pressures of the seed industry’s lobby

An important role in forming the above directives has been played by the seed producing industry, an international business with the ten largest companies controlling the largest market segment. Amongst them are giants such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, which, besides the chemical and biotechnology industry, have spread rapidly in the field of seeds and have a long term strong pressure lobby in the EU for new legislation requiring the strengthening of intellectual property rights and their protection. The companies claim that they currently lose 40% of the potential market due to “illegal reproduction” as they call it, and because of seed production of non-registered varieties. The interests of the European seed industry are represented on all continents within the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) through policies relating to the Plant Variety Protection (PVP).


Molecular “barcode” for plants

Until now genetic engineering seems to have served the industry as the ideal solution for securing intellectual property rights, since genetically modified varieties can be patented and identified in the fields by their genetic code. The farmers which are bound by such contracts can be sued for illegal reproduction, if they keep and trade GM seed. The biotech industry has refused to take responsibility for any contamination in fields and insists on establishing quantitative limits which allow limited genetic contamination in non GM crops, without this being stated on labels.

Given the growing European resistance to GMOs the industry now recommends other related technological solutions. During the negotiations for new legislation regarding seed trading, they were seeking the possibility of identifying varieties through technologies using genetic sequences known as molecular signaling. This technology, although it doesn’t concern the unpredictable and potentially dangerous process of genetic modification, it will allow companies to recognize their

varieties in the field and thus clamp down on re-seeding the following year. But the risk that these genetic sequences could be detected and displayed in neighboring fields due to spontaneous cross-fertilization of plants is ignored, creating the same problems of ownership, just as with GMO.


Production Grabs

What are the consequences if the seed companies succeed and impose their agenda? Environmental and social organizations have already pointed out the authoritarian attack, primarily on local varieties - the last “free” element in agricultural production – and the creation of a dangerously dependent relationship of exchange and control through patents and new technology, even for conventional seeds.

A blatant abolition of the fundamental rights to self preservation and production of seeds and a massive transfer of value from farmers to corporations which are now in open conflict over basic agricultural processes. The interesting thing is that even some conservative analysts have begun realising that this can lead to reduced research and development. In an industry which, unable to generate value through innovation, is trying to grab the last remaining market and increase profits, it is simultaneously preventing any progress in agriculture.