The EU Seed Law – Your Voice Needed!

As promised, I had a blog post ready for this week about compost but as ever I’m overtaken by events.

While attending the AGM of the excellent Land Workers’ Alliance this weekend, Kate McEvoy of the no less excellent Real Seed Collection gave a talk (an excellent one, as it happens) about the impending EU plant reproductive material regulation, which reminded me that the deadline for amendments to the regulation is as soon as 4 December. So, readers of Small Farm Future, please get your pens & placards handy!

I won’t reiterate here all the complexities and implications of the legislation, largely because the Real Seed people have already done it much better than I could here. The Soil Association also have a good page about it here, including a couple of links to their horticulture guru Ben Raskin’s blog posts about it. Do have a look at this stuff and consider writing to your MEP if you can. There’s also an Avaaz petition here.

Pro-agribusiness folk like Steve Savage have written at length on the advantages of plant patents, and there’s certainly a worthwhile debate to be had around that. But that’s just one aspect of larger global moves, which seem much more thoroughgoing in the EU than in the USA, to take the capacity to husband food resources out of the hands of ordinary people. And that, in turn, represents a professionalising mode of thinking in which the myriad and un-regulatable activities of the millions offend the bureaucratic tidy-mindedness and control-freakery of the few.

We’ve seen it with the Potato Council blaming amateur gardeners for problems with late blight, and with the National Pig Association’s opposition to swill feeding. Generally, I think these bodies doth protest too much, tending to blame the little people for problems in their industries that are largely caused by their own unsustainable practices. But even where small-scale activities do increase some risks, I think it could be a price worth paying in order to keep people personally connected with the food system and aware of its vicissitudes. Has anybody done a cost-benefit analysis, for example, of allowing swill-feeding, ignoring the special pleading of the meat export industry, improving swill quality through agricultural extension, saving vastly on food waste and grain/soya production, and valuing the reconnection of people with their social ecology? I don’t think so.

Anyway, getting back to the Land Workers’ Alliance AGM, not the least of its pleasures for me this weekend was dancing and singing and feeling connected with other folk who are working the land in and for their local communities (though I have to admit it took me a while before I felt ready to strut my stuff on the dancefloor – purely on account of my wellies, OK?). It made a nice change from rancorous blogosphere debates, at any rate. Cynics may dismiss that kind of thing as mystical or romantic nonsense, and of course we do need to think open-mindedly about things like plant patents, biosecurity and agronomic science. But part of the problem we have around food in modern society is the way that too many people have forgotten both the joy and the heartache of bringing food out of the soil, and have come to rely on other people to do it all for them at minimum cost to themselves, while too often deriding those that do it. ¡No pasarán!

14 thoughts on “The EU Seed Law – Your Voice Needed!

  1. Wow, backyard potatoes vs. commercial export businesses, and swill feeding this little piggy. You may as well toss in the backyard chicken coop and score a trifecta!!

    I have to agree there is value, and perhaps an incredible value to having folk connect with food production. But there is also a considerable cost to having unprepared folk just willy-nilly raising chickens, pigs, and little taters in a market place where food safety is about as well understood as food production (perhaps less well understood). Romantic imaginings aside, there are many friends and neighbors who are caught up in commercial food production AND all the regulatory here and there it takes to prevent/control late blight, salmonella, trichinosis, and a host of other nasty pathogens. Sure, many of these uglies are more a problem as concentrated production occurs. But they also spring up from time to time in smaller places – and if a producer is not watching for them, bad things happen.

    I can’t go far enough on this thought at the moment – perhaps later today. I do see value in these backyard enterprises. But the other side has an ox to be gored here as well.

  2. Thanks for those thoughts, Clem – I’d be interested to hear you expand on them if you have the time. I agree that small producers ought to take biosecurity seriously and do sometimes operate in ignorance…on the other hand, over here that ignorance stems to some considerable extent from the destruction of farm extension services, which could have helped pave the way for a different and more distributed farming model. I’d argue that the existing industrialised-centralised model generally creates susceptibility and manifold routes for epidemic spread, leading to disproportionate panicked responses and over-zealous efforts towards complete eradication, as with things like the foot & mouth outbreak here in 2001 and the current controversy over swine fever in Eastern Europe. A distributed, small-farm model creates the opportunity to accept an endemic level of disease instead and to take sensible precautions to contain it. Of course I’d be interested in your views on that – particularly on swill feeding, which I understand is permitted in the USA, but has been outlawed throughout the EU since the early 2000s. All this, of course, is at some remove from the EU seed regulations but I have nobody to blame but myself for bundling all these disparate issues together in a single blog post…

    • Swill feeding is permitted here in the states (at least in states I’ve some familiarity with). Here in Ohio it is literally permitted… you have to have a permit. In order to get a permit you have to work with the Ohio Department of Ag. I should be able to get a link on this…

      I took a look at the link you provided above (from the pork folks), and came away with the thought that swill feeding is allowed in the UK – but one needs to carefully define exactly what swill is. If the swill could potentially contain animal products… then it isn’t likely to be allowed. Vegetable scraps appear to be acceptable. Am I wrong?

      The late blight article made a good point about weather and timeliness of planting and delayed harvest for a particular growing season. If the commercial tater folk are griping about small holders when mother nature is more to blame… well shame on them.

      Poultry gets a lot of attention on our side of the pond. Eggs in particular. The Egg folks have made some progress cleaning up their act – they’ve had a pretty ugly history and the clean-up is long overdue. So now we have some pretty conscientious producers who struggle with this history. And we now have some small producers getting into the business and occasionally marketing bad product. I need to dig up a story or reference on this – I heard about this from an egg industry insider, so wait for confirmation.

      Now I have a couple things I need to get for you. 🙂

  3. Salmonella…..I ate backyard laid eggs my whole childhood, did me no harm *twitches*. It was a great way to earn pin money if you had enough space. Blight? Grow earlies. Growing potatoes and keeping chickens are guaranteed ways to have a successful garden. To be really controversial I’m also going to let you know I’m about to start selecting potatoes, rogueing out the blighted/virusy ones and keeping the best for replanting. I may even keep some of them in the ground overwinter, because quite frankly some of my best potatoes are volunteers.

    • Selecting potatoes. Go for it man. But do me one favor (ok, perhaps several favors) – keep notes, and don’t simply make ‘selections’… work with many different genetic types. If you only select by rogueing out diseased material you are probably only keeping escapes (depends upon the genetic uniformity of your test material). Escapes are not resistant, and in future production could get diseased.

      Also – in a garden situation you have to be careful how you manage your plot overall. If you have disease in one area conventional wisdom suggests you plant a different species (a non-host) in the area for many years into the future. To make breeding gains however you would want to plant your tater populations with some potential resistance back into the disease hotspot (and be prepared for significant losses, with the accompanied overall loss of productivity to the garden as a whole).

      • I was going to use only sarpos and not so much develop it as a potato as much as maintain it year after year. I am of course going to keep my volunteers which are big pink skinned baking potatoes which I never planted but which pop up anywhere they like and shrug most things off.

        Thanks for the link – taking potato cuttings and overwintering: i’m in heaven!.

  4. Thanks for that, guys – Tom, there’s a good blog post by Jeremy Cherfas about home saving of seed potatoes here: http://agro.biodiver.se/2013/10/how-to-save-seed-potatoes/ . Not sure about the wisdom of focusing on earlies, though…at least from a commercial perspective. Hmmm, maybe that’s another blog topic.

    “It was a great way to earn pin money if you had enough space.” For me that pretty much sums up farming in general, circa 2013.

    Clem, I’d forgotten how much variation there is at the state level in the US – maybe it’s not so ‘US’ after all…good on you, we could do with a bit more local variation over here. I’d been basing my view on US swill feeding on this entertaining video clip, which as it happens features my brother-in-law: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X0WWmuHWDU .

    In fact, in the EU (not just the UK) it’s illegal to feed pigs any catering waste whatsoever including vegetable peelings if it’s passed through any kind of kitchen, even if it’s subsequently cooked (vegetables that haven’t passed through a kitchen and bakery products are exempt). The logic is that if there’s foreign meat infected with foot and mouth (it’s not endemic in the UK, of course, dear me no…) which a fly lands on and then lands on the swill, then it’s theoretically possible for the pigs to catch FAM…and then of course if the infection spreads the only possible solution is to slaughter thousands of animals in order to eliminate the disease, thereby protecting the meat export industry – which obviously is more important than reducing food waste or agricultural land devoted to fodder production.

    …but sarcasm aside, I do accept your general point that it’s worth thinking about biosecurity. It’s just that I’m not convinced we approach it in the right way, micromanaging small risks and ignoring large ones as we generally do.

    I’m not sure about eggs over here – in the 1980s a not-much-lamented government health minister lost her job after claiming that most UK eggs were infected with salmonella. Salmonella has certainly been a problem, but doesn’t seem to loom too large in the public mind. Backyard chicken keeping is pretty widespread and not massively regulated.

    • Cute video, and it seems a bit brave to admit having a relative involved.

      So herewith a few results of this afternoons brief research into swill feeding here in the U.S.

      1) Swill seems to have gone out of fashion as a working word on this side. Garbage has picked up the slack.

      2) You may feed garbage to swine and to chickens in the state of Ohio with a state permit. To find out about the requirements you can go to:
      http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/942

      Briefly, you cook the stuff to death, and pay a fee for the privilege. Oh, and meat scraps can be used (again… boiled for 30 minutes). I was surprised by the latter tidbit.

      Ohio as a state ranks 9th overall in swine production in the U.S. I took a look at some national stats to see which state ranks first – Iowa. Going to the Iowa Dept of Ag. I couldn’t find any mention of swill or garbage feeding. This makes me think it must be legal – or – the Iowans don’t care for either name and have a different means of discussing the practice. Nevada ranks close to the bottom in swine production, and their Department of Ag doesn’t seem to care much about what one feeds his or her piggies either.

      Oh wait – by that last sentence above I don’t want to imply that Iowan’s don’t care what folk feed to their piggies. Pork is such an enormous industry in Iowa I’m sure they care. And there is a long list of regulations regarding swine husbandry there… to keep the industry and its customer’s safe. I just want to indicate that swill feeding doesn’t appear to make the list of significant concerns.

      And on the point of ‘US’ – it might be worth remembering, it’s United States, not Uniform States. There are member states in the EU with far shorter histories (under their present name) than the first 48 here. And its usually an interesting conversation when one gathers for a couple pints with friends and neighbors who have lived in other U.S. states for any length of time – picking out the differences and personalities of the other places. Its not Nationalism per se – perhaps Stateism?

  5. I ‘m pretty sure that the eggs produced by my chickens are of a higher quality in every respect than any commercial product. They taste, look and cook better of this I am certain. I can’t prove it but I strongly suspect that my chickens wide ranging life style (never need to paddle about in their own shit) make their eggs microbiologically less risky than their commercial counterpart and should there be a problem I’ll soon know about it since the consumers speak to me every day. The main purpose of food production is nutritional. I can’t prove it but I’m fairly certain that eggs from chicken eating a mixed diet of green leaves and insects etc. are nutritional superior to commercial eggs, omega fatty acids being an important example. I would like to go on through, chicken welfare, my welfare, environmental issues and efficiency of land use but I’m already well off the point. So what is my point?
    1/ Large scale egg production can never produce an egg of the quality potentially available from very small scale production so we should encourage good, very small scale and hold large scale producers to account for ongoing negative impact of their industry.
    2/ When setting targets for small scale commercial production of any food I wish for a more sophisticated approach which uses home grown as a bench mark not shoddy commercial standards. And certainly look beyond yield as a measure. Question for another time Chris – is it possible in the commercial arena to match the high standards achievable at home, at any scale?
    3/ Any attempt to restrict the diversity of small scale growers should be recognised for the thinly disguised control freakery of a commerce obsessed society and resisted, subverted or circumvented. In this case seed saving seems entirely appropriate – well done Tom!

  6. Yep, I’d agree with all that Paul. My answer to your question 2 would be ‘no’ – but I suppose the counter-argument would be that although the best homegrown stuff is better than the best commercial stuff the worst homegrown stuff is worse than the worst commercial stuff. That, at any rate, seemed to be the gist of what professor of animal welfare Christine Nicol meant when she said “I have been on some terrible small farms, that I wouldn’t care if they went out of business” – see http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/12/uk-mega-farms-food-prices .

    Comments like Prof Nicol’s don’t say a lot for the quality of research evidence accepted at the University of Bristol these days, but maybe the wider point is about how we think about consumerism and citizenship. My feeling is that it’s good if people can learn to furnish more of their needs for themselves, and a useful government role is to provide extension services and other support to help them be better farmers, rather than laying down the law about how they must farm. But the characteristic government response is to try to professionalise everything and take it beyond the reach of ordinary people. Maybe you could argue that this is unavoidable in a complex, populous, modern world, but surely we could be doing a better job? Funny how there’s this whole right-wing ideology about self-reliance which modern right-wing governments don’t actually honour in practice.

    • Extension services… you’ve mentioned this before. Extension as a government service has a long history (long in a U.S. history sense) here. But it seems to be dying the death of a thousand cuts. Agriculture as an enterprise has been evolving toward fewer and fewer practitioners over time (and I sense this is true in the UK as well) as farm units get larger. This has the unintended consequence of farm folk having a smaller and smaller political voice.

      You have pointed to several issues that industrial ag may have gotten wrong. And the government may seem complicit in backing these industrial efforts. The industrial piece is quite full of many who live in the food sector, but do not make their living on the land. So political significance in the sector comes not so much from those ‘on the land’ as to the whole industrial space, specialists and all. There are millers, bakers, food chemists, chefs, grocers, processors, and on and on. And many of these trades and professions have very long histories as well. So have a look about. Do you know a baker who also raises veges? Is there a chef in town with a hectare sized garden?

      Before I get too far off the point, where is extension for all these trades and professions? As Homo sapiens leave the land for living in cities, democratic forms of government are less and less likely to spare much truck for those still on the land.

      And that, perhaps, sounds a bit ‘glass-half-empty’. It worries me to sound that way. So know that I’m rooting for Vallis Veg and small farms. But I’m also acknowledging there’s a real need for the specialists among us, and this will be a tough row to hoe.

  7. I suppose one thing about farmers is that they tend to be self-employed and toiling away on their own on the farm and so often don’t have the professional support network that exists in other walks of life…as government extension services have dwindled, they seem to have been largely replaced by corporate concerns offering advice, the advice usually being to buy a certain product… Of course, there are also peer groups – ‘farmer to farmer extension’.

    But I suppose in relation to my small farm future schtick, I think there’s a need to keep alive the small-scale, maybe part-time or ‘amateur’ farmer. Kind of a Jeffersonian vision, perhaps. People often say these days as an argument against small-scale farming that it would be a nightmare if lots of urban dwellers headed out to the country, bought a small patch of land and then tried to farm it without knowing what they were doing (pretty much what I did…) Well, it probably would be a nightmare…but less so if people were better prepared and were able to learn something of farming, which is where good extension services might come in.

    It’s an interesting debate. I agree there’s a role for specialists, but I’m with Paul on the notion that most of us have become a little too remote from the basics of self-provisioning.

    Thanks for your pig info, and your reminders about US politics – very interesting.

    And yes, I agree with you about the waning political influence of people who farm the land. It’s troubling. I don’t think non-farming politicians will make good agricultural policy (a bit like how they say politicians who haven’t seen active service make bad war leaders…) Of course, that’ll invite the ridicule of the eco-panglossians, but I suspect we’ll see a return to smaller-scale farming in the future when the contradictions of the present model become ever more apparent (also the argument of Jan van der Ploeg in his fascinating book ‘The New Peasantries’. I’m delighted to be involved with the Land Workers’ Alliance here and be a part of that movement for change. By the way Clem, have you come across the Greenhorns in the US – http://www.sustainabletable.org/703/the-greenhorns-a-movie-and-a-movement? I saw their film at the LWA meeting and it was quite inspiring. I wonder what you view on this is?

  8. You inspire so many more thoughts for the discussion!

    So on the replacement of traditional extension activities through the government with ‘advice’ from a commercial entity… from my post here that judgment seems spot on. And while ‘selling’ a product might conjure a negative in some circles, there can be another angle to consider. Selling something one time is, well, one thing. Developing a relationship with a customer so that you have repeat business is quite another. So if in addition to making a sale you can help your customer learn something…

    I’m thinking you probably offer more than a box of veges – there could be recipes on how to prepare and enjoy some new or different food for instance. In that way you become a sort of extension agent. So while a shrinking of an official extension service may not be to our liking, it isn’t a completely disastrous development.

    On the movement of folk back to the land: this subject could have more sharp edges than Edward Scissorhands. On first blush it could be a disaster, and for more than just a lack of agrarian experience. The culture shock is not to be overlooked. Take you own experience as just one example. Zoning is one thing, neighboring is another. My experience here may run opposite to yours and is likely colored (coloured??) by the distance between us. But I grew up in a rural area. No privacy in the sense that everyone in the community knew everyone else’s business. This isn’t a bad thing. I knew my neighbors for miles around and they knew me. Now I live on the edge of big city; know a few of the closest neighbors, but the network of folk I interact with is less a geographical mix than one of work and play. This isn’t a bad thing either. But these are different social contexts and the difference is quite important. In the country you might not particularly like a given neighbor – but you still have to get along.

    As a sociologist you may be familiar with a phenomenon of what I’ll call immigrant acceptance. This is the case where folk can move into a rural area and the locals will take quite a long time to accept the newcomers. Its not as though newcomers are unwelcome – but they are treated differently. In an urban setting this length of time to acceptance seems far shorter – and may even be unobservable. This aspect of human nature may play on urbanite’s experience in returning to the land as well.

    On folk being too far removed from their food sources – now we’re singing from the same hymnal.

    Many thanks for the mention of Jan van der Ploeg and his book – sound interesting and will have a look.
    Thanks also for bringing up Greenhorns. Had not heard of them. Took a quick look at the link and discovered a couple things I’ll be checking into further. You’re a great source of intel. So, farmer to farmer extension is alive and well!

  9. Thanks Clem for another thought-provoking response. I still owe you a post on community scale and your interesting comments on the country and the city feed into that. I agree with your thoughts on that issue, though certainly in the UK things have been changing for a while. I’ll try to write something on that when I get the time. Interesting thoughts on new forms of farm extension too…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *