Last updated: February 2016
How do EU seed laws affect choice for UK growers?
Ben Raskinfrom the Soil Association answers this complex question.
Where did our laws come from?
Like many laws, the first seed regulations started for good reasons. Some aimed to protect growers from unscrupulous seed merchants in the absence of consumer protection. Others sought to protect seed companies and give confidence that they would make a profit from their breeding endeavours.
National lists and the common catalogue
Current UK seed legislation is mostly determined by EU legislation, though there is some flexibility in interpretation.
To sell a ‘variety’ of a vegetable, it must be on a ’national list‘ which forms part of the EU common catalogue. By law, a vegetable ‘variety’ is more or less defined by it being DUS tested: Distinct(different to other known varieties), Uniform (all plants of that variety are the same) and Stable (plants can be grown for generations without significant change).
Unlike F1 hybrids, Open-Pollinated (OP) varieties are able to breed and develop and could therefore be considered unstable.
Indeed this is one of their most attractive qualities, allowing growers to save seed and adapt it to their own microclimate, contributing to biodiversity. Even at this basic level the legislation attempts to
categorise and tie down something that is ever-changing.
Registering a variety is costly (around £2.5K – depending on variety). Defra have been implementing a less onerous registration for “amateur vegetable varieties” which is generally popular with smaller seed companies, but has been criticised by EU colleagues as improperly implementing the current laws.
However, DUS testing is just one of 12 pieces of EU legislation relating to what they call “plant reproductive material” (PRM). That’s seeds and cuttings to you and me! In 2013 the European Commission put forward a proposal to rationalise these and achieve a number of other aims – some laudable, some misguided and some ludicrous.
- “Promote agrobiodiversity, sustainable production and innovation.” The proposal imposed huge administrative and cost burdens onto producers likely to have had the opposite effect!
- “Stimulate exports to countries outside the EU” by creating confidence in a highly regulated sector. Even if true the effect on non-export markets far outweighed any potential benefit.
Amid allegations of influence from multinational seed companies to over-regulate an already highly regulated market, here are a couple of examples of how a law designed for broadacre arable seed production appears to have little relevance and poses a significant risk for vegetable and ornamental producers:
1. A proposed increase in the scope of the regulation.
Until now, the law controls variety for seeds of arable and major vegetable crops. The new directive included cuttings, rootstocks, module plants, and even potted plants of both edible and ornamental varieties.
With an estimated 50,000 currently unregulated ornamental varieties that would need registering and testing, you can picture the opposition from both industry and Defra.
2. ‘Value for Cultivation and Use’(VCU).
You might imagine that growers are perfectly capable of deciding which varieties are useful to them! The VCU test requires there to be a “clear improvement” on any existing variety before being approved.
However, often the full potential of a variety is only realised after a long period of time, or in particular conditions.
If implemented, the legislation would almost certainly have resulted in a reduced number and increased cost of varieties, as well as some seed companies going out of business. There was concern about the impact on medium-sized seed breeders, and fear of a growing gulf between supply of “heritage” varieties and F1 hybrids.
The EU parliament rejected the 2013 proposed changes by 615 votes to 15, in part due to huge public opposition to the bill throughout Europe. 3
The Commission initially proposed major amendments with rumours of a split regulation for larger commercial enterprises and home gardeners. This would have allowed freer regulation for small scale supply but give the desired reassurance for large production. Our general view is that the less regulation around variety the better.
In particular, there should be no patents for genetic plant material. However, just before Christmas
2014, the Commission placed it on their provisional list of legislation to abandon.
We are still waiting to hear the final outcome.
Although this may appear to be a victory, it may not be the best outcome. The rejection is unlikely to have an impact on the current enforcement of UK laws, but we will still have to limp on with the current, not-for-purpose legislation until the Commission can find time to prioritise a new proposal. With current legislation having already contributed to a 75% loss in agrobiodiversity, change is needed.4 But it must be the right change.
To keep up to date with progress on this, follow the Soil Association seed pages.
Short video from the Soil Association: