Farming News - MEPs reject controversial seed package

MEPs reject controversial seed package

12 Mar 2014

The European Commission's fiercely contested proposals for new plant reproductive material legislation were voted down in the European Parliament on Tuesday.


Draft seed regulations have been rejected at their first reading in the EU Parliament

The Commission 'seed regulations' were rejected by MEPS, who expressed concerns that the package would give the EU executive too much power and leave EU countries without any leeway to tailor the new rules to their needs.


The regulations were drafted by the Commission's consumer affairs bureau DG Sanco, but were opposed by the executive's agricultural and environment bodies, DG Agri and DG Envi. Opponents of the regulations maintain that they were drawn up under intense pressure from lobbyists, and stand to benefit a small number of large seed houses, at the expense of small farmers and breeders.  


The package was rejected by the Parliament's Agriculture Committee during a vote in February.


Following the Commission's refusal to withdraw its draft text and table an improved one, the full Parliament closed its first reading this week, meaning the proposals will now go before the Council unchanged. The draft legislation was rejected by 650 votes to 15 in the Parliament plenary and MEPs passed a resolution calling on the Council to reject the draft legislation.

MEPs reject 'unsatisfactory' regulations


The Parliament's Agriculture Committee chair, Socialist and democrat MEP Paolo De Castro, said on Tuesday, "Today's vote shows the depth of Parliament's dissatisfaction with the Commission's proposal, which failed to meets its core objectives such as simplifying the rules and promoting innovation. It also prompted many concerns among MEPs, for instance about merging 12 directives into a single directly-applicable regulation with no leeway for member states to tailor new rules to their needs."


De Castro continued, "We… regret that Commission has declined to withdraw this widely-disputed text and come up with a better one. It is clear that the draft new rules must be redesigned to better respect different situations in different member states and bring about real improvements for all producers, consumers and the environment."


MEPs also felt that the Commission's "unsatisfactory" package arrived too late in the term; with European elections being held in the Spring, the Agriculture Committee commented last month that the Commission had not given MEPs adequate time.


European Greens in the Parliament have spearheaded a campaign against the seed regulations since they were first published in May last year.


Green MEPs argue that the proposed legislation would further reduce agricultural genetic diversity (which would impact on the resilience of farming and food security), farmers' rights, and the interests of small and organic breeders. Rather, they claim, it was created to serve the needs of a small oligarchy of seed houses dominating the market, not in the interest of making farming more sustainable or improving food production for farmers and the wider European public. 


Backed by a number of environment NGOs, the Greens said that proposed regulations were focused on applying "restrictive and expensive rules and procedures for the testing, registration and marketing of seeds."


They said the criteria chosen by the draft's authors, including distinctness, uniformity and stability, excluded traditional or newly bred heterogenic seeds, which provide a better hope for the conservation, development and sustainable use of seeds. The greens added that this would be a hindrance to more resilient farming practices such as organic farming and mixed cropping.

Green MEP Martin Häusling added, "The global and European decline in genetic diversity in crops is totally at odds with long-term food security. European seed legislation has not helped in this regard and we need a new approach.


"We need rules that promote a broad range of genetic diversity in our crop populations to enable us to adapt to the tougher environmental conditions that climate change is already bringing. Leaving the seed market in the control of a handful of multinational agro-chemical corporations, which design seeds to be tailor-made for use with their own agro-chemicals, is not the right approach."

UK farm groups react to vote


In the UK, the NFU called the Parliament's decision a "backwards step".  Andrew Watts, NFU combinable crops board chair, said, "It is disappointing that the original aims of simplification and modernisation of the current Seeds Marketing Legislation have been forgotten. We have seen the impact of the changing climate on seed availability over the past two years and the European Parliament had an opportunity here to ensure far greater flexibility in the sourcing of seeds on farm, to help guard against shortages but it has not done so."


The union had wanted MEPs to table certain amendments, but had supported the package on the whole.


However, the rejection was welcomed by the Soil Association, whose head of horticulture Ben Raskin said, "This directive as it stands could have a devastating effect on small and medium sized seed suppliers by driving many out of the market, and could impact significantly on the range of seed varieties available to amateur and professional growers, affecting UK [agricultural] biodiversity. We believe that the control and supply of seeds should not lie in the hands of a few large companies – which could ultimately be the result of such a proposal."


Raskin added, "We believe significant changes need to occur in order to guarantee support for those most affected. It is crucial that Owen Paterson also recognises the need for significant changes to be made and we call on him to act in support of both biodiversity and small and medium sized growers in the UK and Europe."

Falling agricultural biodiversity


The European Seed Association, which represents breeders and marketers, said at the time of the Agriculture committee vote that the European seed sector is healthy, and that the seed industry does not believe agricultural biodiversity is under threat. ESA secretary general Garlich von Essen said on Monday that "Nothing… that [would reduce agro-biodiversity] can be found in the existing seed legislation nor in the new proposal. This argument is used as a scapegoat. It is not a valid reason [for rejecting the proposal]."


The industry group has argued that new varieties of seed released every year must be different otherwise they would not be allowed under current EU law. However, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that over the course of the last century agricultural biodiversity fell by 75 percent worldwide. FAO suggests that not only does this figure disguise much higher levels of biodiversity loss for certain crop plants, but that the trend of homogenisation will continue unless action is taken, and that this could affect food producers' abilities to provide more nutritional varieties, combat pests and deal with climate change.


Last month, The EU Greens presented a report in Parliament which showed that just five companies control around 95 percent of the vegetable seed market and a similarly high percentage of field crops. The findings of the report, which was produced by transparency organisation Corporate Observatory Europe and farming group CSM, jar with claims from the Commission and seed industry that the market is made up of around 7,000 mainly small and medium-sized seed businesses, working under the few larger companies.