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Seed Saving Under Threat

In a classic piece of corporate-led legislation, the EU intends to control the saving, swapping and sowing of seeds, by introducing the “Regulation on the Marketing of Plant Reproductive Material”. Small farmers all over Europe could be coerced into giving up their age old practice of saving seed, as doing so becomes so inconvenient and costly that they give up and just buy the big companies’ approved and patented seed.

In a classic piece of corporate-led legislation, the EU intends to control the saving, swapping and sowing of seeds, by introducing the “Regulation on the Marketing of Plant Reproductive Material”. Small farmers all over Europe could be coerced into giving up their age old practice of saving seed, as doing so becomes so inconvenient and costly that they give up and just buy the big companies’ approved and patented seed.

All seed-related actions and interactions (when seeds are bought, sold, swapped or sown) will have to be registered,  in a scheme reminiscent of the way cattle now have passports and all animal movements are recorded. The difference is that  the control of animal movements is to prevent disease, while the reasoning behind seed control is the protection of seed patents. Seed companies will have access to the registers, to allow them to monitor for infringement of Intellectual Property Rights and ask for royalties on any characteristics resembling those that they have the rights to.

The legislation is designed to allow larger seed companies to have more control over the seed supply available to farmers. Politicians  think this is  justified because agricultural scientists invest millions of pounds in developing crop varieties,  and so need to guarantee a return on their investment. DEFRA’s Owen Paterson supports this, saying “it is time that British farming moved away from museum farming and into the modern age”.

One small mercy is that thanks to intense lobbying, more recent drafts of the regulation do makes an exception for the saving of heritage and ancient varieties.

The minister and many seed scientists want ‘modern’ farming to be synonymous with corporate control. From their viewpoint it is essential to control the ability of farmers and independent seed companies to develop new varieties of seed.

But from the perspective of organisations like Via Campesina, farmers have the right to save and develop seed adaptable to their own conditions, with higher priority on taste, and with characteristics necessary for smaller scale organic farming. These would be modern open pollinated varieties, but the seed characteristics, which are based on our common heritage (not on characteristics protected by Intellectual Property Rights), would be freely accessible for farmers to use and develop without registration.

As the proposed Regulation stands, even those exempted will still need to obtain a very expensive plant breeders certificate, register, and go through certification systems similar to organic certification, controlled by independent bodies who will need to charge fees for awarding their certificates. However there will be further drafts, and further lobbying, and the outcome is still uncertain.

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