One of the last hot topics in the European Parliament before the 2014 elections is a new set of rules on seeds marketing. This text is extremely important for all players in the food chain: seed savers, farmers and the seed industry of course, but also environmentalists, consumers and the agro-industry at large. The European Parliament has appointed a rapporteur on the issue, Italian MEP Sergio Silvestris (EPP) who is now co-hosting a dinner event with the European Seed Association (ESA), the seed industry's lobby group in Brussels.
The EU is about to reform the entire EU legislation on seed marketing (12 directives), turning it into a single regulation for all member states.1 Such a reform, which narrows the scope for interpretation at a national level, represents a unique opportunity for the seed industry to consolidate its dominance in this sector and to get rid of “competitors”.
In this instance, the “competitors” are farmers, organic breeders and individuals that currently produce agricultural seed varieties outside the conventional industrial framework and which are free of intellectual property rights.2 Their ecosystem-specific production model has major benefits for cultivated biodiversity, sometimes referred to as “humanity's life insurance policy”,3 but does not fit the monoculture model inherited from the past decades.4 As seeds are the starting point of the whole food chain, controlling this sector is absolutely key and this has not escaped the attention of agro-food giants such as Monsanto, Dow, KWS and Syngenta, all represented by the European Seed Association (ESA). Today, the four biggest companies in the sector control about 58 per cent of the global market and this concentration is increasing.5
Since the beginning, industry's influence on this reform has been noticeable. Last April, CEO documented a conflict of interest within the unit at DG SANCO (the European Commission's Health and Consumers department) in charge of drafting the regulation. A key expert sent by the French State to work within the Commission was, in fact, a senior lobbyist for the seed industry.6 As far as we know, no concrete action was taken by the European Commission to solve this problem. Furthermore, when the Commission presented its new regulatory proposal to the public in June, no representative of organic sector, small farmers or seed savers was invited as a panelist to comment – but the agro-industry was.7
The Commission's proposal tried to prevent opposition from the organic sector and seed savers by introducing exemptions to the rules, but both heavily criticised these for being too limited.8 ESA on the other hand fights these exemptions and seems confident it will win the battle. Its secretary general G. Von Essen expressed such feelings in his concluding remarks to the lobby group's October 2013 general assembly, to which all relevant public administrations were invited (European Commission, Community Plant Variety Office, European Patent Office):
“I think we had a very fruitful exchange on the Commission’s proposal, specifically between the seed companies and their customers, the European farmers and vegetable growers. And we apparently have the same concern that the many derogations and exemptions in the proposal will weaken the system and provide less traceability, quality and health control and with that consumer and environmental protection.”9
Now that the co-decision process has started and the European Parliament will discuss the Commission’s proposal, the lobbying efforts of ESA are targetting the Parliament's Agriculture Committee and particularly the rapporteur in charge of writing the Parliament's draft position on the matter, Italian MEP Sergio Silvestris (EPP).
Their efforts seem to have paid off: Mr. Silvestris is now co-organising a dinner debate with ESA next Monday on the issue. The invitation suggests the initiative came from the MEP, however it was written and sent out by the ESA office and registrations to the parliamentarian's dinner are handled directly by the lobby group's secretariat. The dinner's discussion points are in line with industry's concerns, such as traceability and control. The most fundamental issues at the heart of the proposed reform ie. “preserving and maintaining genetic resources” are also mentioned. ESA indeed thinks biodiversity protection measures are important: they “[...] should not create trade barriers, nor interfere with existing international regimes which support the goals of CBD or with other forms of market regulation such as customs, IP offices or marketing approval authorities, and should be non-discriminatory and create no unreasonable burdens for companies seeking to protect investments through the use of intellectual property rights.”10
So much for humanity's life insurance policy. When asked to comment on the dinner, the office of Mr Silvestris claimed that "these kind of events are normal” and that they “weren’t yet aware that the invitation was already sent out".
UPDATE 19 November 2013 5pm: A new invitation was sent by the ESA to the whole European Parliament, not mentioning the name of Mr. Silvestris as a host any more but simply "ESA EUROPEAN SEED ASSOCIATION", a more accurate description of the event. Mr. Silvestris is still expected to give the introductory and conclusion speeches.
- 1. Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council on the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material, COM(2013) 262 final, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/pressroom/docs/proposal_aphp_en.pdf
- 2. This is most often the case in organic farming for instance.
- 3. Feldmann P., Biodiversity is a life insurance policy for humanity, CIRAD 2010, http://www.cirad.fr/en/news/all-news-items/articles/2010/questions-a/phi...
- 4. For a more detailed backgrounder on this seed legislation and the particular vision of biodiversity defended by the ESA and the European Commission see Closing in on our seeds, Corporate Europe Observatory, 5 June 2013 http://corporateeurope.org/news/closing-our-seeds
- 5. Putting the Cartel before the Horse...and Farm, Seeds, Soil, Peasants, etc. Who Will Control Agricultural Inputs?, ETC Group, September 2013, http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/CartelBeforeHorse11...
- 6. Open letter on the conflicts of interest with the seed industry of a national expert seconded to DG SANCO, Corporate Europe Observatory, April 25th 2013, http://corporateeurope.org/agribusiness/2013/04/open-letter-conflicts-in...
- 7. See the program of the conference: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/information_sources/docs/agenda_...
- 8. Draft seed regulation threatens agricultural biodiversity, joint press release, APRODEV, Arche Noah, Global 2000, ARC 2020, IFOAM EU Group, Save our Seeds, Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, Sowing the future!, 7 May 2013, http://www.seedforall.org/files/joint_press_release_seed_law.pdf
- 9. European Seed Association concludes Annual Congress in Warsaw with record attendance, European Seed Association, 16 October 2013, http://www.euroseeds.org/news-room/news-archive/2013/esa_13.0757/at_down...
- 10. Joint ESA - EU industries’ statement to MEPs on future EU rules on benefit sharing for genetic resources, European Seeds Association, 4 September 2012, http://www.euroseeds.org/publications/position-papers/biodiversity/esa_1...