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Farm Seed Opportunities: a European project on conservation and peasant varieties

Peasant varieties, or local or ancestral varieties, are the subject of renewed interest in Europe. They present some advantages for organic and low-input production systems and adapt easily to diversified farming practices. The European Farm Seed Opportunities (FSO) project was designed to support the implementation of regulations on these varieties.

Farm Seed Opportunity European project logo. © INRA
Updated on 05/02/2016
Published on 09/06/2012

The Farm Seed Opportunities project was developed in order to enhance the diversity of seeds available in Europe and support the implementation of two Directives by Member States: Directive 2008/62/EC concerning arable seeds, and 2009/145/EC on vegetables.  These two Directives were essential in order to obtain a definition of "conservation varieties".  They integrated the central concepts of "landraces" (primary, local varieties), "local adaptation" and "genetic erosion" (reduction in the diversity of cultivated seeds and hence of adaptive potential).

The consortium involved twelve research and agricultural organisations from six European countries.  Surveys were carried out on 27 companies and organisations in five countries (Spain, France, Italy, The Netherlands and Switzerland), who were bakery or pasta manufacturers, the producers of cauliflowers, broccoli and tomatoes or "maintainers" of ancestral fruit and vegetable varieties.  Their reasons for using conservation seeds were based on agronomic, economic or even ethical considerations.  In their view, although consumers are not sufficiently aware of the importance of maintaining cultivated biodiversity, the promotion of these diversification crops is relatively easy, whether this concerns local varieties or preserves produced using ancestral fruit varieties.  However, the profitability of this niche market, which promotes products with marked seasonality, can only be achieved by means of labels (e.g. Organic Farming, protected geographical indication (PGI), etc.).

At present this peasant seed market is mainly restricted by regulations, and notably by Directive 2008/62/EC which, through its 24 articles, lays down the approval procedures and production, packaging and labelling rules for seeds.  However, analysis of these different articles has revealed certain inadequacies regarding the goals pursued.

In the first instance, the notion of "region of origin" is inappropriate.  Historically, plants have always travelled (tomatoes from Latin America, carrots and onions from Asia, etc.).  What sense can therefore be given to so-called "local" varieties, whose selection, production and commercialisation must be achieved in the "region of origin", according to the Directive?

To be the subject of a market, varieties must be registered, which constitutes a guarantee for producers.  In practice, this cost, estimated by the Dutch at €1000 per variety, thus excludes any applications for the registration of varieties that are conserved by small enterprises.  In the first instance, the criteria concerning distinctiveness, uniformity and stability required for the registration of varieties in the official catalogue, and suitable for conventional seeds, are difficult to apply to peasant varieties.  An experiment in three countries, involving some thirty French, Italian and Dutch farmers, quantified the capacities for evolution of these varieties which were subjected to diversified cultivation practices under a variety of different environments (soil and climate).

Faced with the impossibility of integrating all varieties in this current regulatory system, the overall efforts of Farm Seed Opportunities gave rise to proposals regarding the openness and recognition of an informal seed system, covering notably: varieties produced by farmers that do not respond to DUS (Distinctiveness/Uniformity/Stability) criteria, ancestral varieties previously removed from the catalogue because they were of no commercial interest, local varieties used as genetic resources during varietal test programmes, and varieties-populations without any historical link to a specific region.

By drawing up an inventory of the different situations affecting seeds in Europe, Farm Seed Opportunities revealed a considerable diversity of seed systems at the cultural, environmental, climatic and agricultural levels, thus demonstrating the importance of this project to supporting the development of biodiversity on farms.

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