Seed Rights

08 May 2013

Many of the foods we eat have an incredible story behind them. One example is the Swabian Alb lentil, known as Albleisa in the Swabian dialect. Like other legumes in many European agricultural regions, its story was abruptly broken off in the 1960s, when it stopped being cultivated; the lentils required too much care and profits were too low. But the fates of plants used for human consumption are often interwoven with those of stubborn people. In 2006, two researchers discovered Albleisa 1 and 2 seeds in the genetic bank of the Vavilov Institute in Saint Petersburg. They invited Woldemar Mammel, a farmer and passionate researcher who had been hunting for the lentil seeds for years, to share their discovery. The lentils are now being grown again, and today the Albleisa association unites around 60 producers, most of whom sell their legumes on the local market. Passion, a strong will and the small, miraculously recovered seeds are the ingredients of an inspiring story. A story which, however, risks being an increasingly isolated example, in the midst of many (too many) varieties that could easily vanish forever without hope of revival.

Neither current nor proposed laws offer any help. On May 6, 2013, the European Commission put forward a package of measures aimed at reinforcing safety standards along the food production chain. They include measures regarding animal and plant health, and also seeds. In the preceding days, many associations and NGOs had expressed their doubts and concerns, fearing that the Commission would ban the exchange of seeds between farmers and could block the propagation of seeds other than selected types. These fears, unfortunately, proved to be well-founded, with a proposal that focuses entirely on the commercial side—taking as its starting point the fact that 60% of the world export value in seeds originates from the EU—relegating exchange to a corner and limiting it mostly to non-professionals. The proposal’s exemptions are restrictive and not sufficient to prevent negative effects for small-scale actors, market niches and traditional varieties. Only limited space is granted to democratic control and overall the proposal threatens sustainability.

The risks are highlighted by Piero Sardo, the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity: “Seeds are the foundation of agriculture. They shape agricultural systems just as final products do. To protect biodiversity and food sovereignty, it is therefore necessary to forcefully reassert the value of traditional seeds and to find a solution to halt their loss at a global level.” By discouraging or even banning exchanges, imposing certain varieties in place of others and putting limits on one of the fundamental rights of farmers, it is clear that the European Commission is following a completely different path. And it is clear that stories like that of the Albleisa will increasingly be the result of strokes of luck rather than far-sighted policies.

The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity together with other civil society organizations asks the European Parliament and Council to create regulations regarding the commercialization of seeds that are more environmentally friendly and are in the interest of consumers and small-scale producers, and to take this opportunity to abolish an unjustified and excessive bureaucratization.
Click here to read the press release commenting on the vote.

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