French Farmers organise around seeds

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Author: GRAIN
Date: 20 April 2003
Short URL: /e/368

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GRAIN | 20 April 2003 | Seedling - April 2003


There is a ray of hope for farmers in Europe who wish to save and exchange their seeds. Over the last couple of decades, farmers and gardeners have become ever more dependent on an ever-smaller number of companies for their seeds. These seeds are homogenous and non-adaptive. They are sold regardless of the variable environments where they will be planted and regardless of the kinds of farming methods used. The introduction of genetically modified seeds is simply an extension of this “homogenising” of our seeds.

But organic farmers, and other farmers who used methods which do not rely heavily on fertilisers and pesticides, need small amounts of seeds from a wide range of varieties, each variety selected for their specific growing conditions. In this way, these farmers can reduce their dependence on chemical inputs and by keeping many varieties, their seeds can evolve over time, adapting to their unique environment. At the First Toulouse Seed Conference in February 2003, 400 delegates met in Toulouse, France, to discuss ways to get out of this dilemma. Many were farmers who collected and used their own seeds, but also present were activists, union representatives, academics and government researchers.

For decades, each European country has had a National List of seed varieties. In the 1970s, the national lists were collated into a European Community Common Catalogue. To sell seeds in Europe, your variety must be registered on a National List. To be on the list, the variety needs to meet certain criteria, known as DUS: Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability. In addition, you need to show that your plant is an improvement over similar ones (a criterion known as VCU: Value for Cultivation and Use). Farmers' seeds to do not meet these criteria - in particular, they are almost never uniform or stable. And every year the registration of a variety must be renewed on the list for a high fee. Small farmers, their seeds and their systems to maintain and develop varieties just have no place here. As a result, there has been tremendous erosion of genetic diversity in European agriculture through the legal marginalisation of diversity and small farmers.

Yet in 1998 a new directive (98/95/EC) was introduced, amending several other directives on the marketing of specific crops and the 1970 directive on the Common Catalogue of seeds. This directive was an important victory for farmers. After many decades of DUS, corporate concentration and genetic erosion, this directive allows local varieties to be marketed as “varieties for in situ conservation” or for organic agriculture. “Conservation” varieties are traditional or farmer-bred materials, also known as amateur varieties. But the mechanics of this alternate seed system have yet to be determined. Many at the conference felt that this is an excellent opportunity for farmers to take back control of their seeds. This legislation may also prove useful to organic farmers for another reason.

Since 1992, under directive 2091/92/EC, organic producers in the European Union are obliged to use organically produced seed and propagating material. A derogation within this regulation that allows for conventionally produced seed to be used if organically produced seed cannot be found is due to expire on 31 December, 2003. In its place, the European Commission has proposed to draw up an annex to 2091/92/EC with a list of all the organic seed varieties available – and which organic farmers would have to use. Since such a list would remove the incentive for seed producers to breed different varieties, there would be an inevitable decline in the biodiversity of organic varieties. An alternative solution may be to use the 98/95/EC legislation to register local varieties of organic seeds. This would not only be a plus for biodiversity, but would bring down the exorbitantly high cost of organic seed in Europe, which exists because there is not enough organic seed to meet demand.

To move forward on keeping farmers' seed in farmers' hands and away from the big agrochemical companies that now control the seed industry, a number of organisations involved in the Toulouse conference have formed a network called Semences Paysanne (Farmers' seeds). One objective of this network is to start providing some answers to how 98/95/EC can support the use of farmers' seeds.

The new “Semences Paysanne” Association


FNAB (National Federation of Organic Farming)

Confédération Paysanne

Nature et Progès

Mouvement Culture Bio-Dynamique

National Coordination for the Defence of Farm Seeds

Other organisations working on specific crops and many involved locally or regionally

The conference was an important meeting point for many groups to get a common understanding of the action that is needed in Europe right now. Ultimately, the new European law offers an important opportunity for farmers to regain control of their seed systems – and with that, turn around the decline of biodiversity and farmers' autonomy.

Thanks to Guy Kastler and Hélène Zaharia for the information provided in this article. For more information about the conference, the European seed legislation or Semences Paysanne, contact Guy or Hélène at ' + user + '@' + domain +' Tel: +33 1 43 62 04 04.

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