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Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests

BRUSSELS—The European Commission is reforming the European Union's plant and animal health legislation in a bid to enhance food safety across the bloc. But critics say that the measures, proposed on Monday, threaten seed diversity and favor large agrochemical businesses.

The commission has proposed five pieces of legislation to replace and clarify existing regulation, a whopping 70 legal texts governing the European Union's food chain. The package includes rules to better prevent and eradicate pests and animal diseases across the union and to toughen up controls and penalties against food fraud.

Environmental groups have taken aim at one part of the proposal that regulates the production and marketing of seeds and other "plant reproductive material," such as young plants and tubers. At present, companies have to register seeds in each country where they want to sell them; under the new law, procedures valid in one member state would automatically be recognized across the European Union. This would make the variety registration process faster and more conducive to innovation, the commission says. (These rules don't apply to seeds used for testing and scientific activities, or those maintained by seed banks for conservation purposes.)

But groups like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the Soil Association say that the proposal perpetuates criteria for "distinct, uniform and stable" varieties that favor large companies producing homogeneous seeds. Besides, critics claim that annual registration fees would be prohibitive for small companies, pushing them out of the E.U. market. "The plans play directly into the hands of larger corporations that prioritise mass-production of monoculture seed varieties, at the expense of diversity," José Bové, a Green member of the European Parliament from France, said in a statement.

Bruno Henry de Frahan, a professor of agricultural economics and policy at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, counters that the commission's proposal has taken these concerns into account by introducing "positive discrimination" measures to bolster smaller breeders and farmers. Registration rules would be lighter for traditional seeds, and so-called "niche" materialsold in small quantities and adapted to local conditionswould be exempt from registration rules if they are marketed by companies employing less than 10 people. "If European consumers want this kind of organic or traditional products, market prices will reflect this preference" and provide an incentive for innovation, Henry de Frahan told ScienceInsider in an e-mail.

But Philippe Baret, a genetics professor at the same university, says the proposed seed rules may hamper agricultural approaches such as organic farming or agro-ecology. "European [farming] systems are the most diverse worldwide," Baret says, adding that Europe's farmers and scientists have "good ideas for innovation that can be important alternatives" to the prevalent model of intensive production. Some farmers want adaptable, diverse populations in their fields rather than stable, homogeneous ones, he says. For example, his team has shown that cultivating a mixture of crop varieties on the same plot can be an option against fungal diseases.

The proposal will now be discussed and amended by member states and the European Parliament; the commission estimates that the legislation will enter into force in 2016.