The EU seeks to foster a modern and effective regulatory environment for plant breeding and seed production
More than half of all productivity gains across crops is due to improved genetics and this share is expected to grow even further. The EU Commission has defined seed security and diversity as a specific goal for the Farm-to-Fork (F2F) strategy as sustainable food systems rely on them. This article links this goal to the ongoing evaluation of the EU’s seed marketing legislation, concentrating on the expectations and needs of professional seed users and seed suppliers called: “Quality seed for professional use”, where seed is the key input for farming
On the 8th of November 2019, the EU Member States in the Council requested a study on the European Union’s options to update the existing legislation on the production and marketing of plant reproductive material, and a proposal, if appropriate in view of the outcomes of the study.
So, What Happened in the Past?
The Commission submitted in May 2013 a proposal on a Regulation on plant reproductive material replacing 12 Directives marketing seed and other plant reproductive material. It was based on an external evaluation (2007-2008), a stakeholder conference and Action Plan (2009) and an impact assessment (2011-2012). The proposal was part of a broader package to modernise the EU animal health law, plant health law and official controls law.
The proposal was rejected by the European Parliament in March 2014, by a vast majority, and then consequently withdrawn by the Commission in March 2015.
Why Did We Fail?
It is useful to look into the report of the lead parliamentary Committee of the European Parliament (Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development) ) to the Plenary – referring to the opinion Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (of 30 January 2014) and asking to reject the proposal and to submit a new one.
The report can be summarised as follows: keep the individual legal frameworks, do not include forest reproductive material, add more rules in the basic legislation and reduce the administrative burden. It is questioned whether selling to final consumers (hobby gardeners) should be in the scope, what role the CPVO should have and the impact assessment is criticised. Moreover, biodiversity aspects had not been adequately addressed. Other reasons expressed by some MEPs concern the unfortunate timing (shortly after the CAP review and before elections) and the need for more time for discussions.
How Can We Learn From Our Failure?
First of all, the communication and discussion with the European Parliament (EP) is of the outmost importance. The EP is sensitive to the public debate. Therefore, it is important to increase the knowledge of the European seed sector, how it is working, within the public. For example, that it is not made up of only big and global companies, but also many SMEs. The discussions on GMOs have not necessarily given the correct picture of the sector. We in the Commission should also do better to communicate and exchange with the EP and in particular with its Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development. On NGOs, we can do better too.
It would be important to stay abreast of the discussion and debate, in particular through social media. Nowadays in advocating policies and amending legislation a well-prepared communication strategy is of the utmost importance. There are in social media, a wide diversity of perceptions and non-factual information. At the end of the day, it is the question of which narrative will win?
Finally, the expectations were huge: the proposal was supposed to solve problems on concentration in the seed market, biodiversity loss, facilitate the marketing of all kinds of conserved traditional seeds, etc. however, other specific legal frameworks are in place for these objectives.
Are our Objectives Still Valid?
The main objective at the time was to create a common and simplified framework for all sectors of plant reproductive material. Others were to grant more responsibility and flexibility to operators, cut red tape and costs by making the rules more flexible and efficient across the EU, to enhance biodiversity and opportunities for niche markets and for small producers and to make the rules more compatible with policy aims such as sustainable intensification of agriculture and the conservation of biodiversity. Moreover, the aim was to streamline administrative procedures to support innovation and to establish a level playing field by introducing the principle of cost recovery. It seems that most of these objectives are still very valid!
What is our Motivation Now?
Since 2012-2013 many things have changed, and we have the request of the Member States to take action. The concerns that existed around seven years ago are still very relevant in the European Union and indeed in the entire world, such as:
- population growth and demographic developments
- biodiversity loss
- environmental degradation and
- urbanisation – rural populations moving to cities.
But some concerns have clearly grown in importance:
- climate change which requires action now,
- the need to enhance sustainability of agri-food production taking into account the new political strategies in the Green Deal and Farm to Fork, as well as United Nation’s sustainable development goals – all priorities for the Commission,
- continued globalisation taking place, however, due to the COVID-19 crisis, signs of protectionism have emerged – is there an increased need for self-sufficiency?
At the same time, it is important to note that in answering these challenges we have better and continually developing tools than ever before, supporting innovation, such as:
- bio-molecular techniques
- big data and bio-informatics
- artificial intelligence
Why are Member States Pushing Now to Amend the Seed Legislation?
In our experiences with the Member States — but also knowledge gained in the implementation and discussions at international standard setting level — all show there are a number of practical implementation problems with the outdated legislation dating partly back to 60s and these will continue if the legislation is not amended.
For example, the list of species forming the scope of some marketing directives cannot be amended (e.g. it was not possible to include buckwheat); the restrictive rules on varietal mixtures do not allow to follow international developments; new OECD Seed Schemes rules on bio-molecular techniques should normally be introduced in the basic legislation; complicated procedures are applied causing administrative burden, e.g., temporary supply difficulties; the EU equivalence requests from third countries. To continue the list, new innovative approaches following technical and scientific developments cannot be introduced. The results of temporary experiments, in which new alternative rules are tested, cannot be applied after the maximum time period of seven years. Temporary experiments are currently running or just ended on ‘field inspection under official supervision, ‘true potato seeds’, ‘populations/heterogeneous material’ and ‘risk based official field inspection’. Moreover, experience gained during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that overall the seed systems worked well, however, it could be evaluated whether to introduce a possibility for more flexible processes during times of crisis.
In order to answer the request of the Member States to the Commission to submit a study on the Union’s options to consolidate and update the existing legislation on the production and marketing of plant reproductive material (Council Decision (EU) 2019/1905), the Commission has launched an external data gathering exercise with the aim to update and complement, as needed,
- the evaluation from 2008
- the points of the existing impact assessment of 2010
- the baseline, meaning the description of the current seed and breeding sector. We also need a good baseline of the sector, including an updated description, markets and technical innovations.
On the basis of this, the study will identify the available options to update the seed legislation.
Moreover, the study focuses on specific issues that were not addressed at the time in depth such as marketing to final consumers/home gardeners, conservation/amateur varieties, sustainability value for cultivation and use (VCU) criteria used in variety testing by some Member States (level playing field, climate change impacts?), temporary experiments on innovative approaches, official supervision on all categories, EU equivalence, flexibility for variety testing (e.g. one year by breeders) etc. We like to know whether new issues or problems emerged and how can the new political objectives be implemented. It is of utmost importance that the sector highlights any issues emerged since the evaluation in 2007-2008.
The data gathering exercise will be finalised in January 2021, the study will be submitted to the Council in April 2021, and subsequently presented to the EP (COM Agri). If appropriate in view of the outcomes of the study, the Commission will start the process of carrying out an impact assessment, on which the Commission will base its targeted amendment of the legislation on seeds.
What Will Be Different Now?
Concerning policies and legislation on seeds I would like to present the following observations for the future.
First of all, on variety protection, our drive to boost innovation in the EU for the benefit of all (including consumers, farmers and businesses) requires also in the future a strong intellectual property rights system in order to protect innovation (including in plant varieties) and to remain competitive in the global economy in line with Commission’s new Action Plan on Intellectual Property to strengthen the EU’s economic resilience and recovery.
On seed marketing, following the critics on the legal approach of one single Regulation, the focus now should be on targeted amendments of the Directives on plant reproductive material and clearly handling the Directive on forest reproductive material separately.
Concerning the legislation on variety registration for market access of new improved plant varieties, there is a well-established independent authorisation system with official quality testing for the benefit of the users of varieties. Variety registration is also crucial for the process of ensuring varietal identity of seed in the seed certification system.
However, variety registration needs to adapt to allow efficient testing with modern tools, efficient administrative processes and databases. It can have an important role in contributing to enhancing sustainability of our agri-food systems. Moreover, the work done by breeders on variety testing should be recognised. Here I also like to mention the two EU Horizon 2020 projects: ‘Invite’ and ‘Innovar’ which started in 2019. We expect in the future innovative results on variety testing. Other questions have emerged such as how new traits could be better addressed, and should there be more specific requirements for different crops?
It is high time to pose questions on impacts of climate change on variety testing: is there a need for testing across more locations and environments due to extreme variability of local weather conditions and unpredictable extreme weather events in addition to long term climate shifts? How can the industry breed new varieties under these conditions and how could variety testing support plant breeding and identify the best varieties? How can we protect field trials? Should there be, for example, information on the type of environment the varieties are suited in e.g. variety description? In the long term: What would be the impact if we move agricultural production to protected environments such as glasshouses or vertical production?
Currently there are adapted rules in place for specific markets such as conservation and so-called amateur varieties. In addition, since the adoption of the new Organic Regulation, there is ongoing work on addressing the needs of the organic sector. With regard to organic heterogeneous material the legal act is about to be finalised. Moreover in 2021, a temporary experiment on organic varieties is in preparation with the idea to develop adapted DUS and VCU testing protocols for certain priority species covering the specific needs of organic production.
Seed Certification vs Private Quality Assurance Systems?
Is it necessary to keep the seed certification system when seed companies have developed good manufacturing practices and quality assurance systems and technologies that provide, for example, better identity and traceability tools? Could a more modern risk-based approach be taken? What is the impact of climate change on seed certification?
What about consumers, do they request controlled quality of seed or do they prefer instead a larger choice of uncontrolled material risking maybe lower quality?
Listening to some more quiet noises, more citizens are interested in producing food by themselves, also in urban area (urban farming) or in buying more locally produced food produced with local varieties. Also, more diversified diets are recommended in Farm to Fork strategy. In this way biodiversity could be enhanced. What would these developments mean and require as regards the EU seed legislation?
IT to Improve Efficiency and Security
Concerning the procedures and technical processes of variety testing and seed certification it is clear that the most advanced and cost efficient up-to date technologies should be used. The same goes for label security. If needed the legislation should be accordingly updated to allow for their use.
In matters of IT, digitalisation and big data, we should indeed think big and prepare for the future with common systems for all aspects seeds, including variety protection and registration, seed certification and thus improving the security of our systems. We should not limit ourselves to the EU but continue cooperating with OECD, UPOV and ISTA.
Finally, I can assure you that the central objective will be to continue to foster a modern and effective regulatory environment in plant breeding and seed production, under which innovation can thrive, along the political lines of the new Commission.
Editor’s Note: Päivi Mannerkorpi is Team Leader for plant reproductive material at the European Commission