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Using a chainsaw to crack a nut

Ben Raskin - 12 July 2013

It is sometimes said that you get 10 growers together and you will have 10 different opinions, but I recently spent a day with Defra and lots of people from various horticultural walks of life (most of them not organic) and we were almost unanimous in our view of the EU Commission’s latest offering in the form of the Seed Directive. We agreed that a) most of the problems it seemed to be trying to solve were at worst a small problem to a small minority of people and b) this certainly wouldn’t be the best way of solving them.

You might like me question one of the main drivers of the regulation which is to stimulate exports to countries outside the EU, but many of the other stated aims are laudable; for instance to promote agri-biodiversity, sustainable production and innovation. However they want to achieve these by imposing a huge administrative and cost burden onto producers. There are exemptions to fees and some red tape, added to the directive late in the day, for micro-businesses (those of less than 10 people or €2 million ) that are very welcome and are an improvement on the current system, however there is still much work to be done to ensure that the regulation does not result in a significant reduction in agri-biodiversity.

I won’t go through the whole 146 page directive in detail since I wouldn’t have any readers by the end of it (though if you have the time and inclination I encourage you to do so and feed back to MEPs individually – Ben Gable from Real Seeds has produced a very useful guide on how to interpret the otherwise rather impenetrable EU language).  However here are a couple of examples of how a law designed for broad acre arable seed production appears to have little relevance and significant risk for vegetable and ornamental producers.

Firstly there is the proposed increase in scope of the regulation. Until now variety control has existed only for seeds of arable and vegetables. The new directive encompasses what it calls Plant Reproductive Material (PRM) which includes not only seed but also cuttings, rootstocks, module plants, and even potted plants intended for planting into your garden. They don’t yet seem to have realised that even a carrot is potentially a PRM - maybe we should keep quiet on that one just in case.

Then we come to the issue of “Value for Cultivation and Use” (VCU). Now you might imagine that growers are perfectly capable of deciding which varieties are useful to them, and if a plant does not perform then they will quickly stop using it.  In the current regulation any new arable variety has to pass this VCU test and prove to the EU (through each member government) that it is a “clear improvement” on any existing variety before it is approved for sale. The NFU believe that his has resulted in an improvement of arable varieties, and the commission agree since they are proposing to now to include VCU testing for any crop that is deemed “significant”. Furthermore they have the power to move any plant species into this category at any time with no consultation. Often the value of a plant might not be seen during initial testing and field trials, but only once it has been grown either for a long time or in a particular set of circumstances. Rejecting these plants is thus restricting the diversity of our future gene pool.

Perhaps one of the most confusing areas and one that illustrates best the title of this blog is when we come to how to define a variety. This might seem obvious, after all there are rules about this aren’t there? We all might think we know what a variety is. For F1 hybrids this is pretty straightforward, but when we look at Open Pollinated (OP) varieties it all gets a bit more difficult. OPs are not stable, they are liable to genetic drift, indeed this is one of their most attractive qualities for many growers as you can save seed and adapt them to your own microclimate. So for a classic tomato variety like Gardeners Delight that has been grown for many years there may be many different strains all being sold under the same name.

And if you think veg seed is a minefield then let’s have a look at ornamental plants which under the new regulation are likely to be covered too. Which of the nurseries that currently breed perhaps 20 different versions of Lavender “Hidcote” for instance will be responsible for registering and maintaining that variety with all the associated cost and red tape? Up until now there has been no need to register ornamental varieties and with many growers producing different versions of the same plant it is estimated that there will be more than 50,000 plants to register. This could not only bankrupt companies imagine the the strain it will place on the ever shrinking Defra.

There are other areas of concern such as the definition of genebank or network, restrictions on registering a see only in its country of origin and more, but I won’t go on. There seems to be little chance to significantly alter the bill, so our main hope at the moment is to build in sufficient flexibility, safeguards and exemptions to protect what is left of our seed diversity (bearing in mind that the FAO estimates that current farming and regulatory systems have already resulted in a 75% loss in agri-biodiversity).

The commission wants to protect consumers and improve food safety without threatening biodiversity, innovation or sustainable agriculture. There are those that believe it has done just that for arable varieties (though I remain to be convinced that there are not other cheaper ways to achieve a similar result). To do the same for vegetable, ornamental and forestry may be possible but the tool they have designed here is definitely far too powerful for the job and from where I’m standing looks like it going to make quite a mess.

After discovering the outdoor life on an organic vineyard in Northern Italy, and a one year professional gardening course at Lackham College, Ben has worked in horticulture for 16 years. Previous incarnations include running a walled garden in Sussex, working for the HDRA (now Garden Organic) at their gardens in Kent, setting up and running the horticultural production at Daylesford Organic Farm, before moving to the Welsh College of Horticulture as commercial manager. Ben is passionate both about the commercial production of high quality organic vegetables and teaching practical skills through on farm learning. He currently works as horticultural advisor and learning manager for the Soil Association, as horticultural advisor for The Community Farm at Chew Magna, and has just signed the lease on a piece of land near Bristol to plant an experimental and educational fruit and agroforestry system.

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