New EU Legislation Must be Led by Facts

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The Commission is in the final stages of drafting the EU’s new seed marketing legislation that will determine the future of the plant breeding and seed industry. We all know that the European legislative process is a lengthy one with several actors involved over years, which may make the outcome highly unpredictable, even more so if we mix in the process the European Parliament elections. Therefore, starting off on the right foot is crucial.

From my point of view, the main drivers of this exercise should be crop productivity and improved sustainability, which require high-quality seed. For the first one, I find the preamble of the cereal seed Directive particularly enlightening, making the link between high-quality seed and satisfactory results in cereal cultivation. For the second one, I would like to quote the Farm to Fork strategy when it says “(…) Farmers need to have access to a range of quality seeds for plant varieties adapted to the pressures of climate change. (…)”. If you have not noticed, the common denominator for the two drivers is (high-)quality seed.

Following this introduction, I would like to dispel two myths that increasingly have become enshrined in the political discussions around plant reproductive material. The first one refers to the alleged benefits of “heterogeneous material” in comparison to classical plant varieties while the second one refers to the specific value and performance of “old” varieties.

As for the first one, at least three Member States have already registered several organic heterogeneous materials, following the adoption of specific legislation and it seems like the new rules for the marketing of plant reproductive material will open even more the door to such material. But what are the benefits of such material? Should this be the direction of travel?

In 2022, the Commission published the long-awaited report of the seven-year temporary experiment on populations of wheat, barley, oats and maize. Some of the findings are 1) the price of this seed is, if not higher, the same as conventional seed varieties; 2) this material is difficult to identify and therefore to control and trace; 3) yields are lower compared to regular plant varieties; 4) heterogeneous materials do not cope better with challenging environmental conditions; and 5) susceptibility against pests and diseases was higher for some heterogeneous materials than for the control varieties.

These findings clearly do not live up to the expectations expressed by some groups in the current debate. More importantly, one could generally question the interest of promoting such material in the light of the Farm to Fork strategy. If yields are lower, more land would be needed to produce the same. If Europe reduces its agricultural land (as it is for instance, the intention of the Nature Restoration Law), where will this new land come from? Moreover, if susceptibility to pests and diseases is higher, what does it mean in terms of reducing pesticide use?

The second myth I want to address is the one that “old” varieties perform better (be it in terms of plant health or in terms of ability to cope with climate challenges) than the modern plant varieties of today.

Before entering into substance, I want to emphasize that there are valid reasons to maintain traditional and locally adapted varieties, probably the main one being that plant genetic resources are an essential basis for seed innovation. However, this does not validate the assumption of the above paragraph.

A recent study published by the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO) shows that more than one thousand breeding companies are active in Europe (more than 90% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises). These companies develop and register a substantial number of new varieties every year (approx. 3500 to 4000 in agricultural and vegetable species alone). Given the diversity of breeders and the number of new varieties, it is obvious that farmers largely prefer new varieties in comparison to the old ones.

But why are farmers driving and willing to pay the cost of such innovation? The reason is mainly due to the increased yield performance of new varieties. The same CPVO study shows that breeders focus on high yield potential and optimised yield stability (both important objectives in breeders’ programmes, especially in agricultural crops) thanks to better resistance against biotic and abiotic stresses. As an example, the study mentions two other recent articles on winter wheat over the past decades that show how higher yields are highly correlated with other characteristics such as resistance to powdery mildew and stripe rust and greater nitrogen use efficiency. From all available data analysis, it is clear that new varieties generally perform better, both in terms of yield and resistances, than their older counterparts. So, here again, the myth is clearly dispelled by the available data and scientific evidence.

To wrap-up, let me come back to the beginning of this article. If the objective of the new legislation is to support a truly productive and more sustainable EU agriculture, data, facts and science must be the foundation of decision-making. Let’s not get carried away by myths and misperceptions.

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