Seeds might seem far from the world of high tech and free software, but they have much in common. Seeds contain DNA, which is a (quaternary) digital code much like a binary program. Just as there is free software that anyone may use and share, there are free seeds – those that are part of the ancient seeds commons, created over thousands of years, available for use by anyone. And just as free software is threatened by software patents, so seeds are equally endangered by seed patents.
That threat is coming to a head next Monday, when the European Commission votes on regulations that will determine how seeds can be produced and sold. The draft of the regulation [.pdf] is around a hundred pages of pretty dry rules, but the essence is as follows.
The new regulation will apply to every kind of plant, and will impose strict rules on those producing or offering seeds and plants commercially. They must register, every plant or seed they wish to sell must be certified, and these must be packaged according to strict rules that even specify what colour the attached labels must be.
The intent may be laudable: to ensure that plant material that is available in the EU is safe, and that problems can be tracked back to their source. But the bureaucratic burden and cost of compliance is likely to be well beyond most smaller seed producers. This will lead to genetic diversity being reduced, and control over seeds in Europe being concentrated in the hands of a few big companies, which will push their patented seeds over traditional open source ones, for obvious reasons.
You can find out much more about what the new regulations will mean for farmers and for ordinary gardeners, who will also find themselves affected, on the Open Seeds site. As that page explains, the vote on Monday by the European Commission is crucial, and I urge you to write to them at the following email addresses asking them to protect open source seeds:
Viviane.Reding@ec.europa.eu, firstname.lastname@example.org, Siim.Kallas@ec.europa.eu, Neelie.Kroes@ec.europa.eu, Antonio.Tajani@ec.europa.eu, Maros.email@example.com, Olli.Rehn@ec.europa.eu, Janez.Potocnik@ec.europa.eu, Andris.Piebalgs@ec.europa.eu, Michel.Barnier@ec.europa.eu, Androulla.Vassiliou@ec.europa.eu, Algirdas.firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, Maire.Geoghegan-Quinn@ec.europa.eu, Janusz.Lewandowski@ec.europa.eu, Maria.Damanaki@ec.europa.eu, Kristalina.Georgieva@ec.europa.eu, Johannes.Hahn@ec.europa.eu, Connie.Hedegaard@ec.europa.eu, stefan.Fule@ec.europa.eu, Laszlo.Andor@ec.europa.eu, Cecilia.Malmstrom@ec.europa.eu, Dacian.Ciolos@ec.europa.eu, Tonio.Borg@ec.europa.eu
Here's what I've sent:
I am writing to you to urge you to object to the regulation of the licensing and sale of seeds, which I believe you will consider next week.
Although I appreciate that the impulse behind this was laudable enough – to ensure that plant material that is available in the EU is safe, and that problems can be tracked back to their source – the way it is being implemented seems fraught with problems.
First, there is the huge bureaucratic burden that is being imposed upon seed suppliers. These will fall especially hard on small and medium-sized enterprises, a group that I know you are keen to promote.
Perhaps even worse, it will mean that thousands of ancient varieties that are unencumbered and in the public domain will never be registered or certified, and thus will fall out of use. That is a terrible loss of thousands of years of European culture – civilisation was built on seeds, which made cities and all that they bring possible.
That will result in a loss of diversity at a time when European agriculture is facing unprecedented challenges thanks to climate change. The seed licensing proposals make it likely that fewer, less varied seeds will be used; this will make food supply in Europe far less resilient, and more vulnerable to diseases. It will also make European farmers dependent on a small group of large seed suppliers who will be able to exercise oligopoly power with all that this implies for pricing and control.
Finally, these changes will result in tens of millions of ordinary citizens across Europe – the ones who delight in the simple pleasures of gardening – finding themselves limited in the seeds that they can buy and sow. At the very least this is likely to lead to an increasing disillusionment with the European project, something that we all would wish to avoid at a time when many are expressing their doubts on this score.
In summary, I ask you to reject the regulation in its current form, and to insist that it be modified to allow Europe ancient seed heritage to be preserved and enjoyed by future generations, and to ensure that European agriculture remains strong and independent.