Croatian organisations fight to preserve seed as a basic human right

The Croatian iniative, the 'Seed is our Right', campaigning. [Cropix]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming ambitions: between the CAP and the Green Deal.

Bolstered by its own commercial production of seeds, Croatia has become one of the top EU countries for organic agricultural production. But organic farmers now fear that the introduction of a new Seed Act may jeopardise this. EURACTIV Croatia reports.

The draft act, introduced in December, aims to simplify seed production and certification, especially for old and indigenous varieties.

However, it has proven controversial, with detractors warning it could have far-reaching consequences for Croatian agricultural biodiversity.

Both the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, as well as the Commission’s Biodiversity strategy, speak of the importance of preserving seed and the need to facilitate the access of indigenous varieties to the market.

“The Commission will take measures to facilitate the registration of seed varieties, including organic farming, and to ensure easier market access for traditional and locally adapted varieties,” the strategy F2F reads.

Likewise, under the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there is a provision on the “conservation and sustainable use and development of genetic resources in agriculture”.

However, the act includes a number of problematic elements, according to Croatian sustainable farming association Biovrt who, in cooperation with the Croatian Association of Organic Producers (HSEP) and the association of Croatian family farms “Život”, launched a campaign, the “Seed is our human right”, in January 2021.

The campaign calls for producers to have the right to select and grow seeds on their own farm, and has so far received the support of 135 Croatian associations and over 31,000 citizens.

Kolar-Fodor pointed out that the new act directly affects thousands of farmers, warning that it will significantly increase the price of production and risk of a further seed price increase.

”Croatian seed production is insufficient to meet needs and our country’s entire food system is dependent on imports. In 2019, seeds worth $11.9 million (€9.9 million) were imported”, Silvija Kolar-Fodor, president of Biovrt, explained.

Plant breeding sector split over potential of patenting to spur innovation

The European Commission adopted its intellectual property plan in November, hailed as a driver of future growth, but the plant breeding sector remains divided over the potential of intellectual property rights for spurring on much-needed agricultural innovation.

One of the key issues is that the law aims to introduce the term “Seed from an agricultural holding” – the seed of a variety of agricultural plant produced and intended for sowing exclusively on one’s own farm – and prohibit these from being sold on the market.

The other controversy is brewing over the inclusion of Article 16, which restricts the use of these on family-owned farms.

“This term does not exist in any of the EU directives that regulate seed production”, Kolar-Fodor said, highlighting that the Seed Act applies exclusively to commercial use and the seed market.

“The draft law regulates seeds from agricultural holdings, which at the same time explicitly prohibits their placing on the market. Therefore, we believe that this term and all the provisions that apply to it should be deleted”, she stressed.

‘No new restrictions,’ says agriculture ministry

The Ministry of Agriculture claims that the new law does not impose any new restrictions on the seed production and certification system, but instead simplifies the introduction of old and indigenous varieties.

According to the ministry, the seed production sector has grown 23% in the past three years, but every year about 20% of seeds are of extremely low quality – which leads to a decline in production.

“Yields of unprocessed seeds are lower than certified seeds, and its processing increases yields to almost 3 tonnes”, the Ministry pointed out.

Meanwhile, the Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food (HAPIH) highlighted that by registering varieties in the National Variety List, all existing varieties will be gathered in one place, facilitating the production and marketing of old indigenous genotypes.

However, Sunčana Pešak, the secretary of HSEP, argues this is disputable, pointing out that article 16 states that farmers may grow only certified seed for their own use provided they can prove its origin.

Maja Žulj Mihaljević from the department of plant breeding at the faculty of agriculture in Zagreb said Article 16 is a ”domestic idea of our legislators”, and has not been taken from EU marketing directives.

In this sense, legal measures related to the control of seeds for farmers’ own needs are stricter in Croatia compared to other EU countries, she said.

HSEP’s Pešak explained that producers in other EU countries are free to grow seeds without restrictions for their own needs, and use unregistered varieties.

“The only differences are whether they can exchange such seeds with each other and under what conditions,” she said.

For example, countries such as Austria, France, and recently Italy have recognised the importance of exchanges among producers as part of a “solidarity practice important for the conservation and development of agrobiodiversity”, she pointed out.

Seed sector organisations call for review of regulation on plant variety rights

Key players in the European seed sector have joined forces to urge the EU Commission to improve the bloc’s intellectual property laws and mechanisms and enable an effective plant breeding sector. But there are fears that this may negatively impact small and medium-sized farmers.

Biljana Borzan, the S&D rapporteur for the strategy F2F, stressed the need to support seed development.

“Given the great growth of eco-production in Croatia and plans for the further increase within the strategy F2F, the ministry should intervene and take measures to start production,” Borzan said, warning that without seeds, there is “no independence in production”.

“But it seems that the opposite is happening,” he warned.

On 16 March, the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, on behalf of the Commission, responded to the question about the compliance with EU laws, saying she has not yet been informed on the Croatian law, so she could only refer to ”EU legislation on seed marketing”.

At the request of the Council, the Commission is currently conducting a study on the possibilities of updating the law on seed marketing.

”Croatia has all-natural potential for sustainable agriculture. I believe that the new European strategy – the EU Green Deal, will enable us to make positive progress if we adopt consistent strategies and plans in time,” Žulj Mihaljević concluded.

[Edited by Natasha Foote]

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