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Date: 25 April 2002
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ALVARO TOLEDO | 25 April 2002 | Seedling - April 2002



The 1990s have not been a good decade for agricultural biodiversity in Europe. Lack of helpful reform in the Common Agricultural Policy, new legislative restrictions on seeds and a persistent move towards private industry controlling the seed markets has led to further intensification of agriculture and the disempowerment of farmers. But individuals, farmers, communities and non-government organisations are fighting back. Their actions are sometimes even supported with new national and European legislation and funding opportunities.

Many of the articles in Seedling have focused on agricultural biodiversity in the South. This article turns to Europe, providing important information for those working in the South. The European Union (EU) has an important influence on other countries and the policies they adopt. In addition, the European experience is a clear example of how the concentration of power within the food system threatens the future of agricultural biodiversity. Ten years ago, GRAIN's Renée Vellvé published a book examining the state of agrobioversity in Europe. Here Alvaro Toldedo examines how the state of play has changed since the publication of "Saving the Seed: Genetic Diversity and European Agriculture."

Royalties control farm-saved seed

During the 1990s, national legislation for plant protection underwent reform to conform to UPOV 91 (see Box). In July 1994 the European Union (EU) introduced regulations for plant variety development rights, establishing a general framework for the protection of plant varieties and creating the "Community Office for Plant Variety." These changes extended breeders rights beyond reproductive material to include harv-ested material, and in so doing reduced farmers' rights. Furthermore, they extended the periods of protection for plant material and increased the number of species for which breeders rights could be requested. From then on, the practice of conserving commercial seed for re-planting became possible only if the "legitimate interests" of seed developers were protected. This recently established regulation stops farmers from saving certain seeds for free. The numbers of farmers using farm-saved seed is still substantial (see Table 1), but the number is declining and will likely decline further given the forces at large to curb seed saving and the use of non-certified seed. One important factor, in addition to changes in seed saving policies, is the EU´s strategy of linking the utilisation of certified seed with receiving subsidies. The data from Spain is illustrative: at the beginning of the 1990s just 12.6% of seed was certified, but since the introduction of the new policy the figure has shot up to 75%.

Farm-saved seed royalties are determined for each species according to agreements made between agricultural organisations and royalty holders. In some countries, such as the UK and Germany, agreements have already been reached. The concept of "farmers' exemption" has been introduced with these regulations, exempting small farmers (those who produce less than 92 tonnes of cereal) from paying royalties. However, small farmers are only authorised to re-use their own seed for planting. Consequently, the "farmers' exemption" is a trap, prohibiting the vital rural practice of exchanging seed, be it for the production of seed or for experimenting with new genetic material. At least in some Medit-erranean cultures, seed networks will be endangered by this kind of legislation. These networks allow for the shared use of knowledge and techniques developed by expert seed curators or innovative farmers; stop the loss of varieties; lead to shared risks, work and benefits; reinforce the fabric of rural communities; and set an example of diversification and com-plimentary regional land use.

In the UK, a number of farmers have objected to the principle of paying royalties on farm-saved seed. Regardless, the largest farming union, the National Farmers Union, has ignored these concerns and have instead focused on the detailed negotiations of the rates payable on different crops. By contrast in France, the CNDSF (Coordination Nationale pour la Défense des Semences Fermières) has refused to pay royalties. CNDSF is an alliance of various organisations, including farmers unions, such as Confederation Paysanne, organic farmers, and individuals dedicated to fighting UPOV and related laws. Two legislative drafts were presented in order to implement UPOV-91, but neither was approved due to CNDSF's lobbying efforts. This event is considered a first victory; nevertheless, seed companies sent invoices to 135,000 farmers in an effort to collect royalties.

The CNDSF proposed a boycott and only 3% of the farmers paid. Seed companies gave up. In Germany, the situation has become worse. Breeders have requested royalties of appr-oximately 360 Euros ($US 317) from each farmer using seeds derived from certified ones, irrespective of the quantity of seed used. Different farmers' organisations in the EU are working together through an alliance called the Union Européenne des Semences et Plants de Ferme to oppose the payment of royalties.

Gene banks - how free is access?

When farmers point out that their ablility to save seed and develop their own seed resources is constantly being eroded, critics often cite gene banks as a ready source of freely available and freely modifiable genetic material. But farmers' access to gene banks is not always guaranteed. It will often depend on the good will of those responsible for the banks, rather than on the recognition of farmers rights, or the need to establish links between formal and informal production systems. Often farmers and breeders who request samples from gene banks can only obtain material from a bank with whom they have a good relationship. They sometimes receive a reply that due to sample management problems, the bank only ships samples to seed breeders or scientific institutions. But there are some signs that in some cases access is improving (see box).

Registering plant varieties

Farmers need varieties of plants that have the combined characteristics of cultural, genetic and ecological diversity: types of characteristics that allow the crops to adapt well to local envir-onmental conditions. Such varieties tend to be tolerant to pest and disease. To sustain healthy biodiversity on their farms, farmers need access to lots of varieties, including the older com-mercial varieties taken from European cata-logues. Under current legislation, such varieties cannot be registered, and in turn it is illegal to commercially reproduce any variety that is not registered.


An important step has been taken with a new Italian regulation on access to pres-erved genetic material in gene banks. This law has several positive aspects: it guar-antees direct, easy and free access to conserved material, for gardeners or for educational purposes; it tries to dissuade patenting in public research; the preserved material's biosafety is guaranteed, requiring the adoption of a series of measures (such as minimum distances between crops) that will reduce the contamination of material by genetically modified crops.

Nevertheless, in 1998 a new seed directive was launched (directive 98/95/EC) encouraging for the first time the registration of local varieties as "varieties for conservation." Talks have been held up since 1998, but in 2002 a committee will provide more details on this legislation. Requirements to register these types of varieties is designed to be less rigid than for classic DUS registration. "DUS" refers to the characteristics of Distinctiveness, Uniformity & Stability, which all varieties must demonstrate in order to be registered. Instead, the legislation will supp-osedly take into account results of unofficial tests, experiences from the farm, and other associated local knowledge. This new directive should open a door for the development of the small-scale initiatives dedicated to the recuperation and conservation of local agricultural biodiversity. However, the technical rules guiding the listing of these varieties in the Catalogue of Common Varieties still remains to be developed, and many critical aspects need to be discussed. Civil society organisations must participate actively in this process. One false step could close doors to the sustainable use of European agricultural biodiversity.

Trends in registration

Many European countries are already developing seed laws that will allow the maintenance and marketing of landraces and "obsolete" varieties. The Swiss agricultural policy on varieties and propagating material is one of the first to have introduced a derogation clause that allows the commercialisation of non-certified propagating material and non-registered varieties in a national catalogue. In 1999, the list contained 60 landraces of cereals and about 70 landraces of potatoes. Requirements for derogation are quite simple: the demand must be accompanied by basic information about the applicant and the variety. Registration, for the time being, is free.

Finland is establishing a different model with certain positive features. According to its proposal, the farmer applies for the registration to the Seed Testing Department for which the farmer pays a fee. This process is based on the methods and guidelines of UPOV, even if the variety does not fulfil uniformity or stability criteria. Less attention is also paid to the ability of seeds to germinate and species purity, and old varieties are accepted. Some less positive aspects of this proposal is that it creates a relatively strict and inflexible regulatory frame-work governed by the Seed Testing Department.

Other European country regulations provide little hope for local varieties. In France, legislation has maintained the DUS criteria and charges high registration fees (221 Euros [$US 194] per variety). Furthermore, in order to register, the plant variety must be shown to be more than 20 years old; a challenge for locally used varieties not collected from commercial catalogues or mentioned in historical archives (see Table on p 14).

Seed production and commercialisation

Seed production legislation in Europe is directed towards those who produce seed on a large scale. The regulation of horticultural seed production in Spain is a good example. Seed producers must produce a minimum of 20 tonnes per year of vegetable seed. To put this in context, 20 tonnes of aubergine (eggplant) seed would cover more than 10,000 hectares of organic farm land. In 1998, the area planted to organic vegetables in Spain barely exceeded 2,000 hectares. In practice, many Spanish companies do not comply with these requir-ements. Jaap Hardon from the Centre for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research in Holland, says this example illustrates how "the legislation of seeds… is a curious example reflecting how the law protects specific interests at the expense of well founded biological rationale and public interest." This type of legislation is based on the assumption that farmers are not sufficiently capable of managing their own biodiversity.

If steps are taken to allow the registration of local varieties, seed production legislation would also be needed to be modified to support smaller producers of seed such as cooperatives, producers associations and small nurseries. Support is also needed for training and research in local seed production and management. Financial assistance would also be required to help the transition towards local production of seeds, including the creation of local seed banks, setting up programmes for seed management apprenticeships, and researching organic treatments for seed diseases.

The role of NGOs

The role of NGOs in the promotion of genetic diversity on the farm and in the garden has been important in Europe. Such activities include research and development of new varieties for niche markets and the use of a wide range of media for raising awareness and communicating with others.

Many organisations have developed banks and seed exchange networks, and in many countries, NGOs and other organisations provide access to old and delisted varieties. Until now, these activities and related research did not fit into EU funding criteria (Council Regulation (EC) No 1467/94). However, the good news is that for the first time a new type of funding proposal actively promotes on-farm and in situ cons-ervation in Europe, as well as the participation of NGOs - something NGOs have been lobbying for, for many years.


The first priority is the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with the goal of supporting small farmers and communities to produce varied and healthy food. Another priority is reversing intellectual property rights' legislation, including the use of patents, which is increasingly restricting farmers' access to seed. Whilst such legislation has developed for commercial seed with relative ease over the past ten years, little progress has been made in developing appropriate legislation for local and traditional varieties - as was proposed by Renée Vellvé over a decade ago in "Saving the Seed."

In the coming years, concrete action must be taken in order to reform the whole seed industry and regulations. Information sharing between NGOs will be key in ensuring a positive result. Many governments seem to want to quietly introduce a series of legal changes and research programmes so as to facilitate the impl-ementation of certain international agreements without disturbing the agri-industrial lobby.

The on-farm conservation of genetic resources should be held at the local level with the participation of all involved such as farmers, researchers and local consumers. However, on-farm conservation should not be entirely dependent on subsidies specific to the cons-ervation of local varieties. In some cases financially supporting the cultivation of local varieties may be effective (such as the European agri-environmental schemes or through the fixed price system used by the Swiss gover-nment for old varieties of spelt). But in general, when subsidies are no longer available, varieties begin to disappear again. Policies on genetic resources should focus on maintaining the farmers' capacity to preserve and have access to various genetic material, to be free to exchange within networks, or to sell freely through the local market. It may be useful to look South, to learn from experiences there and adopt methodologies using participatory research or farmer-to-farmer exchange.

The trend towards the concentration of power in the agricultural industry is accelerating. This trend presents a serious challenge to agricultural biodiversity. Many think that the future for 'biodiversity-friendly' products lies in high quality product niche markets (such as the designation of origin or quality). However, the most successful experiences of the management of biodiversity lie in the hands (in the fields, gardens and plates) of rural communities, who are close to the producers, as well as in newly established networks between farmers and consumers. It is essential to bring agricultural biodiversity, its conservation and continued development, back to the farmer and the community.

This article is an extract of an unpublished report which will be available on the GRAIN website at: in mid-2002. Alvaro Toledo is an agronomist specialised in agroecology and biodiversity. Since 1999, he has coordinated the initiative Seed Network "Sowing and Exchange" for Plataforma Rural, a Spanish NGO alliance. Thanks for the compilation of this article go to Anna Rosa Martinez, Juan José Soriano, Fernando García Dory, Isabel Bermejo, Helen Groome, Olivier y Helen of Confederation Paysanne, Hannes Lorenzen and Patrick Mulvany.



1. Link on-farm practices and management with the development of local markets.

2. Facilitate networking and exchange of information between different NGOs and farmers. A special emphasis is needed amongst the emerging NGOs in Eastern Europe.

3. Increase capacity amongst NGOs and farmers' associations to exchange information and use participatory methodologies from successful experiences of on-farm management. Support for short exchange visits for training in gene banks to improve skills in all aspects of plant genetic resources as required.

4. Further efforts from the formal sector to provide technical & more practical information including accession data.

5. Genebanks should implement Material Transfer Agreements that prevent claims of ownership or any form fo intellectual property right over genetic material.

6. Guarantee ample participation in the development of regulations related to registration, production and commercialisation of local and traditional varieties.

7. Increase the active involvement, not only of NGOs, but also of farmers and gardeners in the implementation of the Global Plan of Action agreed in Leipzig.

8. Establish a European network to monitor the impact of intellectual property, the concentration of power in agriculture and genetic engineering on biodiversity in Europe.

9. Support the campaign to reform the CAP launched by the CPE (Coordination Paysanne Europee) to support small farmers both in the North and in the South.

10. Ratification of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture before the World Food Summit 5 years later in June 2002. The EU must make every effort to turn it into a tool that promotes food sovereignty, and biodiversity-rich farming under the control of local communities.


Further reading:

T Clunies-Ross (1996), Farmers, Plant Breeders & Seed Regulations. An issue of control. A Case Study of Scottish Seed Potato Industry. The Ecologist.

T Gass et al, (1999), Implementation of the Global Plan of Action in Europe - Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food an Agriculture, IPGRI.

B Laliberté et al, 2000, Report of a Task Force on Wild Species Conservation in Genetic Reserves and a Task Force on On-Farm Conservation and Management, IPGRI.

Lamo de Espinosa et al, 2001, La Semilla de Cereal en España, Informe Aprose 2001.

KJ Müller et al, 2000, An overnational cereal circuit for developing locally adapted organic seeds of wheat. On the web at:

Patrick Mulvany, several articles on the web at:

Reference for this article: Toledo A, 2002, Saving the Seed - Europe's challenge, Seedling, April 2002, GRAIN Publications

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