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Home / News and events / News / Report and recording of the public event “New GMOs, seed marketing : two reforms threaten peasants’ rights”

Report and recording of the public event “New GMOs, seed marketing : two reforms threaten peasants’ rights”

27 April 2023

Two legislative proposals, the first one aiming to exclude certain GMOs from the current GMO regulation, and the second one to modify seed marketing rules, will be discussed by the College of European Commissioners in June 2023[1] . In this context, ECVC organized on the 28 March an event to expose the links between these two reforms and the tremendous impact they could have on peasants’ rights in the EU, and particularly peasants’ collective rights to use, reuse, multiply, exchange and sell their seeds, which are recognized in two international legal instruments[2] .

The event objective was to give ECVC’s peasant members a space to express their deep concerns concerning these two reforms, especially concerning the announced deregulation of new GMOs in the EU, and to engage with representatives of the European Commission who follow these two files. ECVC presented the potential impacts on European patent law and the strengthening of the patent model, which would drastically threaten the GMO-free farming sector, crop biodiversity, peasants’ rights on seeds and the right to food as a whole. ECVC also denounced the fact that all these factors, which are essential for peasant and small-scale farmers livelihoods, were explicitly excluded from the impact assessments led by the European Commission on the two processes. As it stands, for ECVC it is unacceptable to present these legislative proposals without considering these essential elements.

Below you can read a detailed account of the different presentations. The whole debate, including statements from MEPs Eric Andrieu and Benoit Biteau and reactions from European Commission’s representatives, is available on video recording.

Guy Kastler, member of ECVC Seeds & GMOs Working group and retired peasant from France, detailed the links between the two proposed reforms and the issue of patents, which represents the main concern of peasant farmers. In particular, he explained how a loss traceability of new GMOs would lead to a generalisation of biopiracy by patents-holding companies. Under current European patent law (article 9 of EU directive 98/44), the scope of patents on a genetic information can be extended to any organism containing this genetic information and expressing its function. The current obligation of traceability and of publication of the information allowing the distinction between a genetically modified trait and other organisms which may present similar characteristics protects farmers and seed companies by limiting the scope of patents to the plants obtained with techniques of genetic modification. If this obligation disappears for new techniques of genetic, it means that the scope of patents covering a genetic information can be extended to seeds obtained with conventional breeding techniques, if they express this genetic information. This would be an unprecedented privatisation of seeds, including native seeds. Without traceability, peasants will lose their right to use their own seeds

"This would be an unprecedented privatisation of seeds, including native seeds. Without traceability, peasants will lose their right to use their own seeds"

The European patent office has been alerted on this issue, as well as the European Commissioner on internal market, Thierry Breton, who recognized this was concerning, but didn’t propose any solution. Does this mean that the solution is to maintain the current GMO regulation?

Another impact of the strengthening of the patent model is the further concentration of seed market, which is already highly monopolized (5 multinationals control 60% of global market). This concentration has been leading to a corporate control on genetic diversity and a huge loss of cultivated diversity in the past decades. On the other side, the solution proposed by peasant organisations is peasant and local seed breeding, to develop seeds that are well adapted to local territories. Peasant seed systems are a proven solution to support agroecological, sustainable food systems, but they would be threatened by biopiracy in case of deregulation of new genomic technique
Concerning the ongoing revision of seed marketing legislation, ECVC also identifies as a threat the introduction of digital and bio-molecular markers for registering seeds to the common catalogue, which has been proposed by the European Commission. UPOV has already started to replace the phenotypic characteristics of variety descriptions with the genetic or biomolecular markers that characterise patented GMOs. Farmers and small seed companies that do not produce GMOs do not need and do not use genetic and molecular techniques because they are too expensive. If these criteria are made mandatory, they will not be able to register their varieties and sell their seeds.

"Peasant seed systems are a proven solution to support agroecological, sustainable food systems, but they would be threatened by biopiracy in case of deregulation of new genomic techniques"

It is also urgent to develop EU-wide research program to develop detection protocols for these new techniques. It’s an argument often used by the European Commission that these techniques cannot be detected and therefore cannot be regulated, but patent-holding companies do have the means to identify and detect traits obtained with these techniques, they are only keeping this information under industrial secrecy. The only reason why these techniques cannot be detected at the moment is because the EU hasn’t developed a research programme on detection

"The only reason why these techniques cannot be detected at the moment is because the EU hasn’t developed a research programme on detection"

Today, seed companies are lying when they claim that new techniques of genetic modification are not GMOs because they do the same than conventional breeding, they are simply trying to sell GMOs to those who do not want them. The Cartagena Protocol clearly defines GMOs as resulting from the in vitro application of techniques which go beyond the natural barriers of plant reproduction. This clearly applies to all GMOs, including new techniques of genetic modification. ECVC wonders if the European Commission will simply ignore its international obligations, as well as the precaution principle, while moving forward with its deregulation plan.

Claire Robinson, from UK-based organisation GM Watch, then explained how seed companies and plant breeders’ associations pretend to oppose patents … but are privatising patent law through alternative licensing platforms. An example is the “Agricultural Crop Licensing Platform,” which has been founded recently by Corteva, Bayer, BASF and Limagrain. Under this system, “the extent of access to patent-protected traits and breeding technologies can be defined by the members under private law”. In short, “the seed industry has perceived farmer and seed breeder resistance against patented seed as a major obstacle for the deregulation of new GMOs, and now officially states that patents should be ruled out, while offering its own licensing platform from which it will control access to its new GMO technologies and products. These are, however, still patented, because, according to the same companies, it would not be possible to modify European patent law. The ACLP is therefore not a substitute for existing patents, but an addition to them: breeders and farmers will still have to pay license fees to access patented seeds, the use of farm-saved seeds will remain prohibited, the companies will still be able to claim royalties, and these seeds still can’t be used freely to breed new varieties. Moreover, patents have an expiry date (20 years), after which anyone can freely use the technology or product, but, under this system of private licensing rights, they could in theory last indefinitely. This privatisation of patent law makes it easy for companies to grant research licenses, but it makes access to seeds for breeders and farmers even more restricted, and drastically increase corporate control on seeds, and thus on the whole food chain. While food security depends heavily on local and diverse seed varieties bred by farmers and small seed companies, this system of seed capture by large companies, and the increasing secrecy on patents, is very worrying. It is even more concerning considering the risks of patentability of conventional breeding processes which would occur in case of loss of traceability of new GMOs, as raised by ECVC: under this system of private law, the information on the breeding techniques and on the patents will be completely opaque and inaccessible for farmers and breeders.

"This privatisation of patent law makes it easy for companies to grant research licenses, but it makes access to seeds for breeders and farmers even more restricted, and drastically increase corporate control on seeds, and thus on the whole food chain"

José Manuel Benitez Castaño, member of ECVC Seeds & GMOs Working Group and organic peasant in the south of Spain, then presented the concrete socio-economic impacts that deregulation and loss of traceability would have on the GMO-free agricultural sector in the EU, including the organic sector. To give an overview of the economic impact, it is needed to remind some important data on both conventional and organic agriculture. In the EU, many countries have guaranteed GMO-free agriculture: GM crops are partially or completely prohibited in 19 Member States, and only MON810 maize is actually authorized for commercial use. On top of that, the vast majority of farms in Europe are small-scale (2/3 of farms have less than 5 ha), family farms (96% of farms). In this GMO-free farming sector, 5 million people are working, and it doesn’t include data from some countries so it can be estimated it’s even more. The organic sector, which is mandatorily guaranteed GMO-free, including in countries where GM crops are authorized like Spain, is in constant grow and represents 15,3 million ha in 2020 and is a strategic sector for exports. Apart from that, protected designations of origin are also part of this GMO-free economy and represent a growing market share.

If we lose traceability of new genomic techniques, all this sector will be severely threatened because of contamination risks, loss of credibility and lack of trust from consumers,, who do not want to buy products which may contain GMOs. The example of Spain is very relevant in this regard: in Spain where GM crops are authorized, organic production is already very difficult because of contamination risks. The coexistence between the two systems is simply impossible: we have examples of small organic maize farms in Aragón which were contaminated and were shut down. If we lose traceability of new GMOs, the whole organic sector, and the whole GMO-free sector, will suffer the same fate. The contamination issues will also deeply affect farmers’ rights to reuse their seeds, which is crucial for small-scale organic or agroecological production. Farmers will be forced to buy expensive commercial seeds that are not suited for their local conditions of culture.

"The coexistence between the two systems is simply impossible: we have examples of small organic maize farms in Aragón which were contaminated and were shut down. If we lose traceability of new GMOs, the whole organic sector, and the whole GMO-free sector, will suffer the same fate"

Today, what the Commission is proposing is to put a risk a solid and efficient system of food production, relying mostly on small-scale farms and representing millions of workers, which ensure European food safety. The proposed deregulation plan is based solely on the claims and promises of seed companies that these new techniques could contribute to sustainability, claims which are not backed by any scientific evidence nor by any crops with “sustainable” traits available on the market. This proposal is in complete contradiction with the EU objective to attain 25% of organic production by 2030. Sustainable food systems already exist, supported by small-scale organic and agroecological farmers who are already struggling economically and are today asking guarantees to be able to continue producing high quality GMO-free food.

-- Notes --
[1] The two proposals were initially set on the agenda of the Commissioners for the 7 of June, but it has been recently been announced they will be postponed.
[2] For more information on peasants’ rights on seeds, see ECVC publication (2021), Incorporating peasants’ rights on seeds in European law.

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