This year in the Netherlands will be a technical conference of sorts, called OHM2013. I will attend in order to give a presentation entitled Open Source Food. 3000 tickets are up for sale at €180 each, for a 4 day event. In that time a piece of agricultural land in a remote place in the Netherlands will be transformed into a city powered by diesel generators. Each of those lucky 3000 ticket holders will have purchased the right to be volunteers, and will help set up tents and stages, provide ‘content’ like presentations, cook food and so on. Space for camping will be provided.
The event has it’s roots with a group of computer hackers and a Dutch language magazine published in the 1980s and 90s called Hacktic. The event has become an ‘every 4th year’ tradition, started with the Galactic Hacker Party in 1989. It has evolved in recent years to include free thinkers in almost every field. One of the most striking thing about this event is the level of intelligence many of the participants have. It’s truly a place to go to talk with intelligent people, with expertise you never thought existed.
I was at the first event in 1989, and some of the ones that followed years later. I have not been in 12 years now, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s changed. I’m told that together with the other presentations, my presentation will be streamed live on the Internet and available for viewing afterwords. I’ll post more information as I have it.
Update 17 July: The program is now online.
In the final Commission draft of the EU seed law is a provision for niche varieties:
Derogations from registration requirements in the case of niche market plant reproductive material
1. Article 14(1) 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’.
That plant reproductive material is hereinafter referred to as ‘niche market material’.
2. The persons who produce niche market material shall keep records of the quantities of the material produced and made available on the market, per genera, species or type of material. On request, they shall make those records available to the competent authorities.
3. The Commission shall be empowered to adopt delegated acts, in accordance with Article 140, setting out, with regard to the production and making available on the market of niche material belonging to particular genera or species, one or more of the following:
(a) the maximum size of packages, containers or bundles;
(b) requirements concerning traceability, lots and labelling of the niche market material concerned.
(c) modalities of making available on the market.
This provision has sparked quite some discussion in the past few days, all over Europe. The emergence of this provision came as a surprise, and now people are starting to think about how it will affect everyone.
10 persons and annual turnover or balance sheet total does not exceed EUR 2 million
This is the sticking point. On one hand this seems to provide a nice exception for small farmers and seed companies, but on the other seems to cause some problems.
In the Netherlands, 2 small independent seed companies fall over this limit, as do other small independent seed companies in other countries like Franchi in Italy.
In the UK, small seed company Real Seeds has expressed concern, because their business depends on supplier relationships with larger seed companies. The Soil Association has publicly expressed concern because large investment is often need to develop new seed varieties, and smaller companies may not have the capacity to adequately do this.
Protecting Small Businesses
The original thought when this exemption was proposed was to reduce the red tape for smaller companies, but another purpose has emerged. If larger companies could not produce or sell niche market material, it also protects smaller businesses from competition from larger ones.
There is a big problem worldwide that we depend on a very small number of seed companies for virtually all of our seed, and this could provide a nice launching point for small businesses into the market.
Flawed Principles of Registration
There is widespread belief that the system of seed registration is seriously flawed to begin with, and a small exception like niche varieties is not enough. Instead there should be no mandatory registration for anyone, regardless of size.
However nice this provision may be in the regulation, the delegated acts in section 3 could completely undermine the entire article at any moment.
Getting Around the Limit
In my opinion, this is not a very hard limit. For example if a company is a little too large, they could form a holding company and 2 or more subsidiaries. This would be feasible for a small company, but less feasible for the very largest of seed companies.
I think seed could also probably be produced by foreign companies, then imported.
What Shall We Do?
Shall we keep this provision? Shall we scrap mandatory registration, then make this derogation unnecessary? Should we change the limit? Shall we keep this provision, but get rid of the delegated acts?
I personally think there’s a lot to be said for getting rid of mandatory registration for all non-GMO open pollinated varieties. The entire system of registration is seriously flawed. It’s not just seeds that are registered, but the entire supply chain, and in the end member states can impose even more restrictions if they want.
I also think there’s an argument for keeping this provision in order to protect smaller companies, but perhaps with some changes to fix obvious problems.
One Swallow Does Not Make a Summer
Some very important changes appeared in the legislation draft in the last minute. I posted about this here. This is only because of pressure people all around the world put on the EU Commission. Signatures on petitions, emails to commissioners and the like. This was no gift, it came because we demanded it and worked hard for it. We must keep up the pressure. There are other problems with the legislation, and there is the possibility it will be amended later in the legislative process.
Fundamentally it’s bad legislation. It starts by declaring all seeds used in agriculture illegal, as well as most materials used in forestry management in Europe. It does not criminalize seeds, it makes them illegal. It then goes on to detail procedures for testing, certifying and registering this material, setting very strict rules on the people and companies that sell this material, then makes a few small but important exemptions. This is the wrong way to approach these things. Seeds should not be illegal — this does not make sense. Even if the only practical risk for using the wrong seeds is an administrative fine, this can be a disaster for a small farmer or seed company.
Not much attention has been paid to the forestry side of things, but what’s going to happen when all the trees in Europe’s forests are distinct, uniform and stable? How’s that going to be for biodiversity in general? It’s an important issue, but those of us working on the food side of things don’t have time to get into this right now.
Beyond regulating the seeds themselves, everyone in the entire supply chain is to be regulated, and there remains the possibility that individual EU member states could add additional regulations.
It’s completely the wrong way to address this issue.
Horse Meat or Horse Hockey?
The EU commission (DG SANCO) is comparing this to the recent horse meat fiasco in Europe. According to them, this is going to bring safety and purity to the food chain in Europe. The only sort of purity it’s going to bring to our food is the kind of genetic purity the Third Reich tried to bring to Europe during the war. Our food is not safer if it’s ‘genetically pure’, rather its less healthy, more bland and significantly more more damaging to the environment. It’s dependent on strong chemicals and fossil fuels, in part to make up for it’s genetic weaknesses.
This sort of agriculture is destroying agricultural biodiversity in Europe and around the world. Traditionally bred agriculture has virtually no consumer safety issues related to it’s genetics.
This legislation is completely filled with so-called delegated acts. These are incomplete sections — to be determined at a later date. These will be determined by industry dominated committees, immune to democratic process. These delegated acts have been a huge problem for small seed companies and farmers in the past. There are literally dozens of these acts, that at a later date could turn the whole piece of legislation upside down.
These must be dealt with now, by democratic process.
Protecting Europe’s Seed Industry and Exports
The argument is being made that somehow if genetically unpure seed were commercially produced in Europe it could tarnish the reputation of the seed industry, and harm exports.
If you buy seeds from a known source and get bad seeds, you don’t go back to that source. The problem is nearly all of Europe’s seeds are produced by a very small number of very large companies, and the market needs to be opened to smaller operators. It’s very bad for food security to be so dependant on our seeds in this way. The truth is the seed industry is more afraid of competition than the loss of Europe’s reputation.
We need to protect and stimulate Europe’s small farmers and seed producers. This is critical for the integrity of our agriculture, as well as the environment and rural development.
Protecting Europe’s Small Farmers and Seed Companies
There are very few provisions in this legislation that are good for small companies, but the limiting of the size of companies that can benefit from the so-called niche provision to €2.000.000 turnover or assets and 10 employees is a very good one. Companies that miss this limit by a little bit can reorganize and adapt in order to meet the requirements, but it will remain an obstacle for the largest companies.
The Seeds for Home Gardeners Will be Criminalized!
Stop! These were the words of one person, who misrepresented the situation. In the earlier drafts of the legislation this was not totally clear, but these were rough drafts and intended for discussion. The issue however was legality and not criminality, and it was a simple oversight slated to be clarified. In the latest draft home gardeners are explicitly excluded. This has never been a serious risk to home gardeners, only maybe to the companies that sell them seeds.
Yesterday the NGOs working on the seed law revision I’ve posted about several times, most recently here, received a 3rd and probably final EU Commission draft [Update: This draft has been updated, the last Commission draft can be downloaded from here.] of the legislation. This is a major rewriting of previous drafts, 124 pages, but not significantly different. It’s better written and easier to understand, but the consequences are mostly the same.
There are some new provisions apparently making it legal for individuals and seed saving organizations to engage in seed trading, something we’ve been promised for a while now. This is still not possible for farmers!
In a very promising way, there are three new classes of seeds introduced under this latest draft, however with significant limitations for all of them.
Officially Recognized Description (ORD)
This is a classification limited to older varieties, those on the market before the enactment of this legislation. They will still have to be classified according to region of origin, regardless of if this is clear or how many regions it was previously grown in, however will be allowed to be registered for multiple regions. It will only be allowed to be grown in the region(s) of origin, and it will still need to be maintained by an official seed company.
This is a different set of regulations that now exist for these types of seeds, and is cumbersome in it’s own way. Many smaller seed companies won’t be able to satisfy these requirements, or will be forced to resell purchased seeds instead of growing their own. In particular, that it must be maintained in it’s region of origin is not very sensible.
This new concept might benefit some consumers, in that some older varieties may make it onto market that aren’t available now, but probably only the larger companies will find it profitable to grow these and produce seed.
This is one of the more promising new concepts, essentially everything goes here. No seed registration is necessary. There are however 2 important limitations:
1. This will be limited to companies with less than €75.000 annual turnover or assets, and a maximum of 4 employees.
2. The seeds and/or products may only be sold once, to the final user, who may not resell them directly, or re-propagate the material for further sale.
What good is this? The €75.000 in annual turnover is not profit, it’s total revenue in after paying expenses needs to pay the salaries of the 4 employees! Then, whoever buys the products from this company must be the end user, so it won’t be possible to make use of any wholesaler or distributor.
In effect, this will make it possible for a very altruistic person, to sell their garden vegetables at a farmers market.
This is also a promising new class of material, unfortunately we don’t know anything about it, because it’s a ‘delegated act’, meaning the details will be worked out later.
I can tell you right now, if it’s limited to companies with less than €75.000 annual turnover or assets, and a maximum of 4 employees, it won’t mean anything.
We must continue to oppose this law until our demands are met!
Please sign the petition if you haven’t already done so!
Demands of Civil Society
- No obligatory registration and certification for open pollinated seeds and other PRM not protected by a IPR.
- The scope of the regulation must remain limited to marketing of PRM with a view to commercial exploitation
- The exchange of seeds and other plant reproductive material between farmers and individuals must be excluded from the scope of the regulation
- Open pollinated varieties and seeds bred for organic farming or specific local conditions must not be discriminated against by any norms, procedures or plant health requirements.
- Micro and small enterprises need only comply with very basic rules concerning labelling and packaging, unless they are dealing with GMO or with PRM protected by IPRs (Plant Variety Protection or patents).
- Ensure public transparency on breeding methods and IPR associated with registered varieties and plants.
- Voluntary registration based on officially recognized descriptions shall be possible for all species and genera, without registration deadlines, or restrictions concerning when first marketed or geographic origin.
Journalists can contact the author of this blog for more information.
Mobile phone: +31 6 40109417
Skype: patrick _wiebe (with prior arrangement)
Goran was one of the participants from the recent workshop in Vienna. He sent me a link to this video documenting his community garden project in Croatia.
In his own words, according to the description on the YouTube video:
Published on Apr 22, 2013
Promotional video for grassroots urban gardening project in Croatian city of Varaždin. The project started 1st of May 2012. At the moment 100 gardeners take care of their 50 m2 gardens on area of about 1 hectare. The project was realized completely without money but with great enthusiasm of the citizens.
You can find more detailed description here:
You can also find their Croation language blog here.