The EU seed market is dominated by a few large seed businesses rather than a diverse range of smaller companies, which has implications for the continent’s food security, says a report commissioned by European Parliament Green group.
Five companies control about 95% of the vegetable seed sector and 75% of the maize market share specifically, according to the report, presented in the European Parliament on Wednesday (29 January).
The assertion goes against European Commission and seed industry’s position that the market, and the five dominant companies, is made up of some 7000 mainly small and medium-sized entreprises, allowing for healthy competition.
“This is simply not true. The EU seed market is not healthy. It is not diversified,” said Bart Staes, a Green MEP from Belgium who presented the report, ‘Concentration of market power in the EU seed market’.
The Greens say that the concentration of power in the seed market means that these companies may have had a strong influence over the European Commission in its seed and plant reproductive material marketing proposals.
These proposals, which the Commission presented to the EU legislature in May last year “benefit the seed lobby”, said Staes.
Garlich von Essen, the secretary general of the European Seed Association, which represents about 30 national seed associations from the EU member states, said that the figure of 7000 smaller companies was “pretty accurate”.
The figure was the same as those given by an external evaluator to the European Commission. “I’m pretty confident [the Commission] did not just copy-paste the ESA figures”, he said.
The majority of MEPs have decided to block the seed law, but this may largely be due to procedural irregularities, Staes told EurActiv.
To the Greens, dominance by a few large agri-businesses in the seed market has impacts on crop diversity and food security.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the diversity of cultivated crops fell by 75% during the 20th century and that one third of today’s varieties could disappear by 2050.
The Green report again cites the FAO’s estimation that some 7000 species have been used for nutrition in the history of humanity but that only three species - rice, wheat and maize - make up more than half of people’s calorie supply.
“The wealth of species that have contributed to humanity’s balanced nutrition has therefore been severely eroded,” the report says.
“We need that rapidly-eroding genetic diversity, a vital part of agro-biodiversity, for our long term food security, in order to mitigate risks of pest attack and crop failure from increased extreme weather events, and also to maintain genetic capital to adapt around challenges like climate change.”
“Diversity is a key issue for our own food security,” said Satu Hassi, a Finnish Green MEP.
The report says that agricultural innovation, which farmers used to achieve through traditional breeding techniques, is now the preserve of large agri-business.
This has created “tailor-made dependency on agrochemicals”, the authors say.
“The same interests who own the seed monopolies are those of the agro-chemical sector, indeed in some cases they are the same companies, in others the money used to develop seeds comes from the agro-chemical sector in open collaboration,” the report says.
Von Essen, the secretary general of the European Seed Association, told EurActiv he did not think that diversity was falling in the seed sector.
“What we can actually document is that every year there is more new plant varieties registered and these all have to be different from the ones that are already there otherwise they are not accepted under the current rules, so indeed there is new material.”
Von Essen added that farmers could still draw on a large range of older seed varieties, which are still kept in stores and gene banks, but instead choose newer varieties that are fit for purpose.
“If you have the choice between a new Golf Volkswagen or you drive the twenty year-old Volkswagen, you might go for the new one, and that’s what farmers do,” he said.