Sustainable Agriculture Reviews

Volume 15 of the series Sustainable Agriculture Reviews pp 1-64


Seed Legislation in Europe and Crop Genetic Diversity

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Crop genetic diversity has always been important for food production. With changing climatic conditions, the importance of crop genetic diversity is increasing as diversity is central to agriculture’s ability to adapt to higher temperatures, precipitation changes and new pests and diseases. Maintenance of and access to this genetic diversity has become crucial. Legislation on the marketing of seed and plant propagating material, often referred to as ‘seed legislation’, specifies the requirements that seed and other propagating material must fulfil to be marketed legally, and how this marketing may be conducted. Such legislation can have a great impact on the composition of the seed market, as well as on cultivation and breeding, not least as it has the potential to restrict access to and maintenance of crop genetic diversity. In the European Union (EU) seed legislation is based on the principles of variety registration and certification of seed lots. Seed may be marketed only if it belongs to a variety that has been registered and the seed lot has been certified. A variety must satisfy distinctness, uniformity and stability requirements. For heterogeneous varieties this can be problematic, which in turn has potential consequences for the maintenance and further development of crop genetic diversity.

The introduction of derogations for the marketing of certain types of varieties and seed mixtures for conservation purposes provided greater legal space for the maintenance of crop genetic diversity in the EU. However, these derogations cover only some of the crop genetic diversity excluded from marketing by the main legislation. In addition, restrictions limit where and to what extent such varieties and seed mixtures can be marketed. In a preliminary ruling on the validity of current restrictions on the marketing of unregistered varieties, the Court of Justice of the EU in 2012 held that the legislation was valid. Many central stakeholders had expected the judgment to follow the opinion of Advocate General Kokott, who had reached the opposite conclusion. While the opinion had found that the disadvantages of the restrictions in question outweighed the benefits, the judgment concluded that the legislation was not manifestly inappropriate, given the objective of improved productivity. However, current legislation has been under review, and some changes are expected. During the review process various stakeholders voiced a wide range of differing views. Also in the literature, various suggestions for changing the EU seed legislation have been offered. As the details of seed legislation have received little attention outside a small circle of stakeholders and decision-makers, it is hoped that this article can help bring greater awareness of its importance and potential impact on the maintenance of crop genetic diversity.


Crop genetic diversity Agriculture Legislation Seed Propagating material Marketing Variety Landrace European Union Directives Derogations Conservation variety Review Evaluation Conservation Maintenance Kokopelli Opinion Judgment Reform