Writing this blog is a great way to experience the truism that policy-making is a marathon, not a sprint. Or, as we say in German, you have to be ready to drill holes into thick slates of wood (weird expression much?) What I want to say is – the next episode of the story of the new EU seed regulation (which we talked about here and here) just occurred, and it shows the power of public opinion as much as the need for adequate communication and stakeholder involvement. But let me back up for a second.
Remember the issue? The new EU seed regulation was set to unify the current 12 different directives that concern intellectual property rights on ‘plant reproductive material’ into one, but was thought to give undue power to larger seed corporations by requiring costly and inconvenient registration processes and prohibiting the sale or exchange of non-registered seeds. This gave rise to massive public protests to preserve heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Campaigns such as Free Seeds interpreted the regulations the following way: “Older and rarer varieties will soon be declared illegal. Brightly speckled tomatoes, purple potatoes, the tasty apples we ate as children: these could soon vanish from our plates and gardens. While consumers, horticulturists and farmers are increasingly restricted by diminishing biodiversity, the agricultural industries can finally breathe a sigh of relief: with biodiversity wiped out, all that remains is regulated monoculture, which they can serve up to the people. The EU seed regulations allow for the concentration of seed production in the hands of even fewer multinationals. This would put an end to many indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruit and grains.“
As I wrote then, the revisions of the draft proposal actually addressed some of the concerns, creating exceptions for niche species, but questions about the concrete application of the law still remained, and apparently were not sufficiently discussed within EU decision-making bodies, while NGO lobbying efforts stayed strong. In the end, the Parliament voted to kill the regulation by 650 votes to 15 after the Commission refused to take it back and rewrite the text.
Reading the BBC transcript of the discussion in Parliament, the frustration of the perceived misunderstanding is palpable:
“The Commission’s proposals were rejected by MEPs at committee stage, and the plenary as a whole is being urged to follow the committee’s line. The committee has said that the Commission’s proposals would concentrate too many powers in the hands of the Commission, and not leave member states with enough flexibility to adapt the rules to their needs. The draft regulation brings in a large number of “delegated acts”, something opposed by the committee. […]
Opening his contribution, Health Commissioner Toni Borg admits, “our communication on this new strategy has failed”. He insists that the Commission’s plans are the exact opposite to what MEPs are saying. He says the aim of the Commission’s plans is to improve the quality of seeds made available to farmers or foresters. He says that European farming organisations support the revisions of the seed regulation, “as do plant breeders and the majority of EU member states”. “Each time there is mention of delegated acts there is criticism from the European Parliament”, complains the Commissioner.“
Fascinating, eh? Other news sources mirror the feeling that the debate has been misdirected, citing representatives of the European Seed Association alleging that “there has been a massive campaign of misinformation and allegations discrediting the Commission’s proposal as well as the entire European seed sector.” A (British) National Farmers Union spokesperson complained that “the debate seems to have been hijacked by an often factually incorrect media campaign which has got in the way of real progress.” He added contract-farmers will now continue to be penalised by ‘archaic legislation which has failed to recognise the necessary changing business structures within the arable sector’.“
On the other hand, civil society organizations such as the “Free Seeds” campaign are triumphant, and other groups such as the British Soil Association have expressed relief that the proposal has gone back to the drawing board, if only for the potential implications of it. According to their head of horticulture:
“This directive as it stands could have a devastating effect on small and medium sized seed suppliers by driving many out of the market, and could impact significantly on the range of seed varieties available to amateur and professional growers, affecting UK biodiversity. We believe that the control and supply of seeds should not lie in the hands of a few large companies – which could ultimately be the result of such a proposal.”
Personally, I think I agree with that statement, although I have to admit that I concur that some of the NGOs opposed to the regulation have engaged in real fear-mongering, rather than a factual discourse. Whether that is necessary to put the question front and center on EU parliamentarians’ agenda is a different question; it definitely creates some interesting reflections on what works and what doesn’t in the democratic policy-making arena.
After this rejection, the proposal will go to the Council of Ministers (remember the complex EU-decision-making process? Yeah.) If they reject the draft as well, it is killed for good. If they don’t, the Commission will have to rewrite it, taking into consideration the concerns of the Parliament, at which point it goes back to the Parliament and they would have to accept or reject it again. If they reject it a second time, it’s also dead. My prediction is that the Council (the state representatives) will want it to go through, so that the issue will ultimately come before a new European Parliament (elections are May 25) in a rewritten version. Let the lobbying begin… Again.