Second in our series showing the blueprint for Transition Free Press. The front section of the paper is dedicated to news stories and is edited by Alexis Rowell. As we are a quarterly this poses a challenge – to present articles that are happening at the time of publication and will still be relevant at the end of our three-month distribution period. One of the page 3 articles in this issue is about a change in the EU seed laws which was debated this year and still hangs in the balance.* This is set within the frame of a global struggle to protect native and heritage seed diversity from increasingly predatory ‘Big Ag’ corporations, and grassroots movements, such as Transition, which stand by indigenous farmers and growers and the plants they tend. Mark Watson gathers the facts:
The European Parliament is set to vote on changes in plant laws which could threaten future availability of heritage and rare seed varieties for individual and community growers.
The original draft required all vegetable, fruit and tree seeds to be officially registered, making saving and swapping unlisted seed illegal — bad news for seed diversity. However, due to Europe-wide lobbying, some eleventh hour concessions have exempted small-scale growers, seed banks and networks. The amended law was passed by the European Commission in May and is expected to go to the European Parliament later this year.
“Driving this law are the demands of the global, industrial, agricultural seed industry,” says Ben Gabel of the Real Seed Catalogue, which specialises in heritage vegetable seeds for small growers. “Once again, small-scale, sustainable, home and market gardening has been lumped together conceptually with the seed supply for industrial agriculture. The two have completely different needs. A Community Supported Agriculture scheme might buy a 10 gram packet of seeds. A big farmer buys a tonne.”
Garden Organic, whose Heritage Seed Library saves and distributes heirloom seeds, warns that the concessions may be only short-term good news. They point out that other parts of the law are quite restrictive, including clauses that mean the key concessions agreed could be removed in the future without coming back to the Parliament for a vote.
According to permaculture teacher, Patrick Whitefield: “The likely outcome is that it will become increasingly difficult to get hold of any seeds other than a small number of recent varieties bred for large-scale production.” Just three companies control over 50% of the global commercial seed market. “The laws are being set up to consolidate an industrial agriculture which is supposed to last indefinitely and which provides uniform varieties of seeds large farmers can rely on to produce consistent crops,” says Gabel.
No provision exists for open-pollinated, heritage varieties handed down over generations by millions of small farmers and growers worldwide. And nowhere is a decline in fossil fuels or an energy-leaner future accounted for: the kind of future which Transition addresses.
Local, small-scale food-growing is embedded in the Transition ethos, and the movement has many active permaculturists. At Seedy Saturdays and Give and Grow days, seeds are freely swapped and grown in community gardens, on allotments or at home. Produce is shared or used in community meals such as Sustainable Bungay’s monthly Happy Mondays. Transition Chesterfield’s annual January potato day boasts over 40 different potato varieties.
Transition San Francisco created a seed library with the city’s Permaculture Guild. Residents borrow, plant and harvest vegetable seeds, returning each year’s healthiest ones to the library. They aim, says Ania Moniuszko, “to include a wide selection of seeds best suited to each micro-climate, having grown to full fruition, responding to the local soil, climate, and plant and animal life.”
*UPDATE 30th September 2013 NEGOTIATIONS BEGIN (from Arche Noah’s website):
The European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee have begun negotiations on EU-seed regulation. The Austrian MEP spoke in favor of freedom of choice for consumers and for the preservation of [seed] diversity. MEPs have until 4 December to introduce amendments to improve the regulation (called the Plant Reproductive Material Law). The vote on the Regulation will take place in the European Parliament in April 2014. (Translated from German original by Mark Watson)
10th January 2014 URGENT: Many of the concessions mentioned in this article have been watered down or restricted. PLEASE READ this UPDATE in The REAL SEED CATALOGUE and write to the MEPs concerned (details in article).
Mark Watson is Chair of Sustainable Bungay and TFP’s distribution manager. He blogs and tweets as markinflowers.
Seed Freedom Fortnight runs from 2-16 October. See here for more details of how to take part.
Images of seed collection from markinflowers