Centering small producers' voices

in the seed marketing law reform

By Mathieu Willard and Adèle Pautrat

Seeds of Europe experts' panel at the European Parliament © Adèle Violette

On November 28, in collaboration with SEED Luxemburg and the Greens / EFA, the Seeds4All project took part in the organisation of a conference at the European Parliament to discuss the future of seeds.

Delving into the heart of the matter, the main aim of the event was to spotlight the specific voices and urgent demands of artisan seed producers, in the context of the reform of the European legislative framework applicable to the sale and exchange of seeds.

Where does the legal framework stand? Does the Commission's proposal take account of the specific needs of small seed producers? Does it go in the direction of a common right to seeds and their reproduction? Would it truly encourage the regeneration of cultivated biodiversity?

In this article, we highlight the key insights gleaned from the conference.

Assessing the failures of the current seed law

The EU's current seed marketing framework is one of the main causes leading to a significant decline in cultivated diversity. Traditional and indigenous varieties have massively been eradicated due to stringent regulations and high costs associated with compliance. The legislation has encouraged the spread of a very small number of uniform varieties, most of which being heavily dependent on chemical treatments. A situation that threatens the independence and autonomy of small seed producers and farmers and, ultimately, food security.

Another consequence of the current law has been the growing concentration of the seed market in the hands of a handful players, which not only undermines the resilience of rural areas economies but also threatens food sovereignty.

Examining the political landscape, the Green Deal has not lived up to expectations, and the proposal to employ genetically modified organisms as a means to achieve sustainability goals raises huge concerns.

As the political framework for farming and food production legislation deteriorates, it is crucial to consider the imperative of defending and enhancing genetic diversity, through the recognition of the millions of seed varieties which escape official catalogs due to their heterogeneous and evolving characteristics: population, peasant, traditional, rustic, old varieties, etc.

Undermining the regeneration of agrobiodiversity was the main argument which led Parliament to reject the Commission's proposal to reform the seed marketing law in 2013. This imperative should still be a central point of focus in analysing the new proposal. Perhaps even more so ten years later, given the urgency of initiating the transition towards sustainable agri-food systems.

Seeds of Europe, giving the floor to small-scale seed producers and farmers

To get into the evening’s topics, the event started with the premier of the superb documentary "Seeds of Europe".

Directed by Lennart Kleinschmidt and Lotta Schwenkert, this short movie gives the floor to artisan seeds producers from Ireland, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic, whose words reflect both the diversity of European agricultural ecosystems and the common struggle for recognition of their much-needed work.

Projection of the movie Seedsof Europe at the European Parliament © Adèle Violette

Insisting on the absurdity of a legal framework that tends to place their activity in the same field of legality as the sale of certain illicit products, they all express their opposition to a monolithic legislation designed for the needs of an industrial production model, dominant since the second half of the 20th century and still just as reluctant to let alternatives prosper.

Strikingly beautiful images of magnificent landscapes and inspiring collective projects pay colourful tribute to the people and practices that strengthen food sovereignty around Europe. This film is an invaluable resource to be shared without restraint, for the aptness and simplicity with which it illustrates the stakes involved in defending the rights and importance of alternative seed production.

The particular issues and urgent needs of regenerating agrobiodiversity in the EU

Following the screening, the audience listened to a discussion between panel members with diverse backgrounds: Frank Adams, artisan seed producer and co-founder of the SEED Luxemburg network, Magdalena Prieler, policy officer of the citizen seed conservation association Arche Noah, Christophe Golay, researcher at the Geneva Academy specialising in the right to food and the right to seeds, Blanche Magarinos-Rey, legal expert on the EU legislation for the marketing of seeds, Chloé Mathurin from the European Coordination La Via Campesina (ECVC), Green MEPs Benoît Biteau and Claude Gruffat, as well as Dorothée Andrée, Head of the Plant Health Unit at the Commission’s DG AGRI.

Ms. Andrée presented the proposal to reform the EU’s Seed Marketing legislation as a well-calibrated compromise addressing a range of requests. And although the Parliament rapporteur Herbert Dorffmann couldn't attend in person, he sent a video reiterating the commitment to reassure the audience about the good intentions behind protecting small farmers and breeders who aim to enhance biodiversity in the fields.

However, as emphasised by Green MEP Martin Häusling, the devil lies in the details. And the panellists invited to express their views were particularly clear in highlighting critical points of tension.

Worrying overlaps between GMOs and seed marketing laws

The proposal for the revision of the seed marketing law and the proposal to deregulate GMOs are linked in many ways. And those links show that certain aspects of the seed marketing framework are being designed to facilitate the entry of GMOs on the EU market.

First, there is the perfect similitude between sustainability criteria included in the registration process of seeds and sustainability criteria for approving ‘category 2’ plants derived from new genomic techniques (NGTs). To learn more on this point, we invite you to read our previous article on the topic.

Second, the labelling of genetically modified traits in varieties is inconsistent between the NGT and the PRM files. Whether in the official seed catalogues or on the seed packages, the rules for labelling need to be strengthened.

Third, the provisions in the seed marketing law proposal to avoid detrimental environmental effects of certain varieties, like Herbicide Tolerant (HT) plants, are poorly drafted. Indeed, it is the responsibility of Member States to impose specific cultivation conditions for these controversial HT varieties, but no controls are foreseen.

On the farmer side, represented by ECVC’s Chloé Mathurin, there is a fear that some new commercial categories, such as new conservation varieties and the extension of heterogeneous material to non-organic seeds, could create an easier path for GM seeds to enter the market. Indeed, with these new categories, companies do not need to stabilise the seeds into a variety to obtain a plant variety right, which is convenient because GMOs can be difficult to stabilise.

In theory, small farmers welcome the introduction of greater seed diversity in commercial offerings through the creation of new legal categories, which should enable seeds to be better adapted to agroecological practices. But in practice they report that too little is being done to avoid ending up with untraced, patented GM seeds in these new categories. What is even more concerning is that these seeds are not covered by a plant variety right but only by patents. In consequence, farmers would lose the farmer’s exemption and the right to reuse seeds from the harvest.

Overall, the interactions between these two pieces of legislation tend to show that they will work hand in hand to facilitate the entry of GMOs into the EU market, including HT varieties.

Citizens protesting against GMOs in front of the EP, Brussels, Nov. 23 © Adèle Violette

Not fit for gene banks, seed savers and small breeders

According to Magdalena Prieler of Arche Noah, although positive derogations are foreseen for the marketing of seeds to home gardeners and of conservation varieties to farmers, the provisions for gene banks and seed saver networks are not fit for purpose.

They will endanger the preservation of the remaining genetic diversity of cultivated plants and go against the commitment of the EU and its Member States under the Conservation on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

Moreover, for the smallest scale seed producers, the overall regulatory burden is so high and would require so much extra time, extra staff and extra skills that it will cause many to cease their work with diversity or move into illegality.

Peasants' seed systems in danger

In the climate and biodiversity crises, peasant seed breeding is essential, as resulting varieties can adapt to local cultivation conditions. Peasant seeds therefore have the potential to be resilient in the face of extreme climate stresses and to help reduce the use of chemical input.

And to do so, farmers need to be able to exchange their seeds. It is a practice that has been going for thousands of years and is recognised as a formal right in several international instruments. But the Seed Marketing proposal fails to implement these rights.

A big issue in the proposal is that the exchange of seeds between farmers is defined as marketing. It means that small farmers who exchange a few seeds with other farmers are considered as seed companies and that the plant health rules of seeds marketing will apply to the seeds farmers want to exchange.

In practice, seeds will have to be cultivated in plots separated from the plots aimed for agricultural production. This goes against the very objective of the derogation, which is to allow dynamic management of seeds on farm.

Another limit is that the exchange can only concern seeds and not all PRM (such as cuttings, plants), which doesn’t correspond to the practices of farmers in the field.

Failure to fulfilthe inalienable right to seeds

Dr. Christophe Golay from the Geneva Academy highlighted that while the proposal presents possibilities for diversifying the seed market, its current form falls short of acknowledging, safeguarding, and fulfilling the right to seeds.

Specifically, the proposal does not respect many essential aspects of article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP), which refers to the right to seeds. Below are the five main elements of this article.

  1. Peasants’ right to maintain, control, protect and develop their own seeds and traditional knowledge.
  2. The right to the protection of traditional knowledge, innovation and practices relevant to seeds
  3. The right to participate in decision-making on matters relating to seeds
  4. The right to equitably participate in the sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of seeds
  5. The right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed or propagating material

To understand more deeply how the proposal fails to fulfil those rights, we recommend this documentation: here, here and here.

Informal seed exchange at the 2022 Let's Liberate Diversity forum © Adèle Violette

Our conslusion? Diversity can't be a derogation

Ultimately, the issue stems from the Commission's unwavering view that diversity is merely a derogation from the dominant industrial model, rather than recognising it as the primary and enduring solution.

As Frank Adams explains, the work for the traditional diversity of our food plants is a service to the common good. This work not only needs to be recognised but also protected and promoted.

It is not enough to keep diversity in the refrigerators of seed banks and reduce the role of traditional varieties to source material for technological plant breeding. For sustainable food security, we need seeds that can evolve each year as agricultural ecosystems evolve.

Since the preparations for a new law on seed marketing started, European networks have made several proposals to the Commission. But the latter maintains that the right to seeds, as set out in the UNDROP, cannot be implemented because of concerns about plant health, variety protection, seed quality and transparency, as well as unequal competition.

Legal experts, small-scale farmers’ representatives, organic breeders and seed savers in the panel and in the audience joined their voices to oppose that vision. “If these are the real reasons, let's negotiate again, because solutions can be found”.

If not, the Commission runs the risk of failing as it did in 2013.

Experiencing "live" the benefits of regenerating locally-adapted crops!

To close this event rich in reflections and exchanges, we had the pleasure of tasting local products giving pride of place to the regeneration of rustic and traditional varieties adapted to the growing conditions of the Pajottenland and Condroz regions of Belgium.


The palates of all participants and speakers were delighted with the traditional Geuze produced by the 3 Fonteinen brewery as part of a partnership established with a network of neighbouring cereal growers engaged in the cultivation of ancient varieties of cereals. More info here. Likewise, we were offered a selection of breads from the hyper-local bakery chain Au Coeur du Pain. More info here.


A slightly more sensitive way of winning political attention and support for the transition to seed-growing practices that promote ecology, short supply chains and the pleasure of eating!

Local products' tasting at Seeds of Europe event in the EP © Adèle Violette