Skip to content or view screen version

Urgent seeds alert!!!!!! Genetic heritage under threat

Nicholas Bell | 24.02.2008 22:46 | Bio-technology | Ecology | Globalisation

The French seed-saving organization Kokopelli has recently been fined 35,000 Euros for saving seeds not on the EU list, after being taken to court by the seed merchant Baumaux. Meanwhile, there is a severe risk of a disastrous directive being adopted by the European Union concerning seeds of conservation varieties

Dear friends,
Seeds represent a genetic heritage built up over 10,000 years of human selection, one of the oldest and most precious treasures belonging to all humanity. The future of this priceless heritage is at stake and decisions of great importance will be taken in the coming months. Will this enormous wealth of traditional seeds which forms the basis of all life on earth be freely available to farmers and gardeners as it was for thousands of years, or will it only belong to a few multinational seed companies?

We see the need to react to two court verdicts against the French association, Kokopelli, which has recently been condemned for illegally producing and selling seeds of traditional plant varieties. It is also urgent to prevent the EU adopting some dangerous directives on seeds which could be voted on soon.

You will find attached further information in the attached letter. Please intervene with the Minister in your country concerned by this question (in the UK, it's Hilary Benn - Sec of State for DEFRA), and send a copy to us (European Civic Forum). It would be great if you could also inform your friends and colleagues.

We have avoided sending out a model letter as mass mailings of model letters tend to have far less weight than different personal letters. It is important to include the three main demands indicated at the end of the attached letter.

Many thanks for yor help and best wishes, Nicholas Bell, European Civic Forum

Contact : European Civic Forum, St-Hippolyte, F-04300 Limans
Tel. 00.33. (0) 492 73 04 05 / 492 73 00 64

Letters should be sent by post and email to :
The Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn MP
Nobel House
17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR and to be doubly sure :

MORE INFO BELOW or If you speak french see "On A Perdu" main article on the home page of their website.


St Hippolyte
F- 04300 Limans
Tél.: 0033 (0)4 92 73 05 98 / 492 73 00 64

Limans, 17 February 2008

Urgent : Biodiversity under threat !

Dear friends,

Seeds represent a genetic heritage built up over 10,000 years of human selection, one of the oldest and most precious treasures belonging to all humanity. The future of this priceless heritage is at stake and decisions of great importance will be taken in the coming months. Will this enormous wealth of traditional seeds which forms the basis of all life on earth be freely available to farmers and gardeners as it was for thousands of years, or will it only belong to a few multinational seed companies?

The French seed industry is leading an unprecedented war for control in this field. It has done all in its power to ensure that national legislations and European directives make illegal the production and sale of reproducible seeds that are not registered in the official catalogue of breeds and varieties. This catalogue is almost entirely made up of sterile varieties. The situation differs throughout
Europe. A country like Austria, for example, has taken the opposite approach and provides considerable support to initiatives seeking to maintain and protect the seeds of traditional varieties.

In the most recent episode of this open war Kokopelli has just been condemned in two trials. This association has created one of the largest European collections (2500 reproducible varieties) of vegetable, flower and cereal seeds reproducible and accessible both to amateurs and to professionals. There are many larger seed banks, but they are the property either of big agro-industrial trusts
(Limagrain, Syngenta, Pioneer…), which reserve them for the production of clones and GMOs, or of states which provide little or no access for the wider public.

These verdicts could become a dangerous jurisprudential precedent affecting the whole of Europe and could prevent other organisations seeking to preserve biodiversity from distributing and selling seeds. It is urgent to react throughout the European Union. We must make clear to all national governments and to the European Commission that the citizens of this continent consider it to be absolutely essential to protect our heritage of cultivated genetic biodiversity. It is
therefore vital to adopt European directives that enable associations like Kokopelli to pursue the invaluable work they are doing in this field.

It is in fact the French government that is keeping Kokopelli in an illegal position. For ten years a European directive (98-95 CEE) has clearly indicated that everything must be undertaken to safeguard varieties under threat of genetic erosion. However, neither France nor the European Commission have appled this text which has not been transposed into the national legislation. This would have enabled Kokopelli to continue its work of conservation and distribution in
full legality, a task the state is no longer guaranteeing.

Since 1998 other directives have been adopted, partially replacing Directive 98-95 CEE. European legislation on seeds is so complex and confusing that the European Commission recently decided to carry out an evaluation with the aim of ensuring that there is a coherent harmonised legal situation throughout the EU. This evaluation, which is to be completed by the end of this year, is being carried out in a very undemocratic manner with a total lack of transparency. As yet it
has been impossible to find out which external body has received the mission to carry it out. It is essential that there is a genuine debate and consultation with all of the actors in the seed sector, including organisations involved in the defence of traditional seeds and in the conservation of biodiversity.

Everything indicates that the Commission intends to completely remodel European seed legislation on the basis of this evaluation, which would no doubt take place in 2009. Despite this fact, in its meeting on 25 February in Brussels the "Standing Committee on Seeds" will be debating the first of four proposals on the seeds of conservation varieties. These include severe geographic and
quantitative restrictions to the production, use and sale of seeds under threat of genetic erosion (see annexe). The Commission is basing its plan to impose such restrictions on the content of existing directives which will soon become null and void.

This is why we call on you to send letters, as rapidly as possible, to the Minister responsible in your country for the questions of seeds and cultivated biodiversity. There are three key demands to make :

Seeds of conservation varieties should not be considered to be a matter of minor importance within the general question of seeds, subject to regulations imposed without a public debate and consultation with all those involved in the sector;
No directives on seeds of conservation varieties should be adopted before the completion of a transparent and democratic evaluation and the adoption of new European legislation which reflects the views of organisations promoting biodiversity. Discussion of the three draft directives on the agenda of the meeting on 25 February should be postponed until this date;
A moratorium should be established covering the period of the evaluation and the adoption of definitive new European seed legislation to enable the many associations and companies throughout Europe to pursue their vital work for the safeguard and distribution of traditional seeds. Without such a moratorium these organisations will face the risk of being taken to court for the illegal sale of
seeds. A year without activity in this field will exacerbate the already serious erosion of traditional plant varieties.

Please send us copies of your letters. In this way we will be able to inform the European Parliament and Commission as well as the media that there is Europe-wide concern about this matter.

With our best wishes,
Nicholas Bell
European Civic Forum


The texts of the three proposed directives on the agenda of the meeting on 25 February are not available yet, either to the public or the European Parliament. We can, however, suppose that they will resemble the documents already proposed in April 2007.

Draft Commission Directive providing for certain derogations for acceptance of
agricultural landraces and varieties which are naturally adapted to the local and regional conditions and threatened by genetic erosion and for marketing of seed and seed potatoes of those landraces and varieties

We are strongly alarmed by this proposal because we consider that it does not serve the needs of a satisfactory “on farm” conservation of plant genetic resources. Instead of simplifying market access for small-scale farmers and producers, it provides for a highly restrictive framework for the marketing of seeds of conservation varieties.

According to the present proposal, the production, marketing and use of the seeds of a conservation variety will be restricted to their place of origin. Apart from the fact that the origin of a variety is often outside Europe, this is an inappropriate barrier, contradicting the idea of consumer and farmer choice. In addition it would block the further development of biodiversity which requires exchange to ensure regeneration. These restrictions would therefore create an obstacle to the viable long-term conservation of varieties facing the threat of genetic erosion. They also go against the fundamental principle of the free movement of goods within the EU, and contradict the principle of the freedom of trade and industry, without any
justification being presented.

Moreover, there are also quantitative restrictions affecting the amount of seeds of a conservation variety which may be produced. There are two forms of restriction: a ceiling of 0,5% of the seeds of the same species used in the same season in a given member state (0,3% of certain species), or of the quantity of seed needed to sow 20 hectares of the particular variety. These are extremely small quantities and are not sufficient to ensure the daily and long-term use which is the only way of avoiding the extinction of particularly threatened varieties. Once again, no justification is given.

The present proposal would require controls of seed production on site, of quantities of marketed seed and of the surface planted for each variety. These controls would be expensive and do not comply with the principle of proportionality, in view of the modest economic relevance of conservation varieties.

The geographic and quantitative restrictions, together with the control obligations, put a burden of costs and bureaucracy on to farmers and small-scale breeders, instead of facilitating the maintenance of conservation varieties through their daily use. This goes against the goal of the conservation of biodiversity in agriculture, as defined in various international commitments made by the EU as well as in the EU Biodiversity strategy. The restrictions and control obligations also seem disproportionate with regard to consumer protection, as almost no risk for consumers exists, apart from purchasing a less uniform selection of seeds. When consumers buy seeds of a clearly labelled "conservation variety", they are aware of this fact.

What is more, there is a strong call both from farmers and consumers that old traditional varieties should be made available again and thus find their way back to our plates. All of the restrictions proposed by the European Commission represent unjustifiable distortions of the freedom of economic operators.

Finally, the geographic restrictions would appear to be totally counter-productive, if not suicidal, when one considers the growing risks of climate change. Certain zones of origin of plant varieties may become no longer adapted for such plants due to problems of drought or temperature change. On the other hand, traditional plant varieties originating from other countries or even continents may be better adapted to these new climatic conditions. It is therefore essential to ensure that this heritage built up over millenia is able to adapt gradually to changing circumstances.

Nicholas Bell