Ed. note: This article first appeared on ARC2020.eu. ARC2020 is a platform for agri-food and rural actors working towards better food, farming, and rural policies for Europe.

“Rural Europe Takes Action – No more business as usual”, a policy guide for rural Europe by ARC2020 and Forum Synergies, launched in June 2022. Today’s extract from Rural Europe Takes Action tells the story of the Balkan Seeds Network, a network of scientists and seed savers’ organisations tapping into the rich biodiversity and agricultural heritage of South Eastern Europe to stimulate resilient food systems, and establishing a paradigm of collaboration for the Balkan region. 

Drawing on the insights of the Balkan Seeds Network and other initiatives featured in Chapter 6 “Seeds and Systems”, Rural Europe Takes Action calls on policymakers to empower people and territories to rebuild broken food systems through a rural policy framework that enshrines the right to food and the right to seeds. This policy action point is detailed below, followed by the story of the Balkan Seeds Network. 

The Rural Europe Takes Action e-book is available here. To order a hardcopy, contact info@forum-synergies.eu. 

Policy Action

We need to empower people and territories to rebuild fractured food systems from the bottom up. 

Food must be addressed as a system, and food systems must be addressed within a wider rural policy framework that enshrines the right to food and the right to seeds and supports small producers. By empowering communities to build sustainable local food systems – including new models based on cooperation for the common good – policymakers will be helping to build local economic resilience and taking action to combat climate change and biodiversity loss.

Seeds of Collaboration

By the Balkan Seeds Network with lead author Anastasia Vasileadou of  SITO Seeds. 

We are the Balkan Seeds Network – a network of seed scientists, grassrοots, nonprofits coordinating seed banks, farmers, gardeners, public research institutes and educational institutions formed in 2020 and expanding in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, North Macedonia and Serbia, supported by the professional know-how of the Austrian seedsavers network Arche Noah.

The abundance of biodiversity and agricultural heritage among Balkan countries provides opportunities to explore and highlight the value of local, traditional or organic food for consumers and farmers. Local genetic resources are well adapted to low input agriculture, and can help to address the challenges of climate change, food sovereignty and food security.

Focusing on our shared geographical, social and cultural heritage, as well as community needs, we support each other in our common mission for conservation, enrichment and sustainable use of Plant Genetic Resources (PGR). We provide a robust cooperative framework within which to collectively address our common goals, needs and problems – for the common good.

We also promote organic agriculture and agroecology. Translating science into practice, we support participatory and organic breeding and selection for adaptation to low input and organic conditions. We strengthen the linkage between ex situ, in situ and on-farm conservation of PGR. We do not support GMOs, New Genomic Technologies (NGT), or patents on life.

Both seeds and information are exchanged in our network. Partners are already supporting each other by sharing expertise. For example, Arche Noah, Austria, held webinars to train our network on EU Seed Policy, and Frame of Life shared know-how on seed hygiene with SITO Seeds (see page 111) . Networking has led to new collaboration opportunities in areas such as EU seed policy, community seed banking and organic breeding. Some of our members were invited to join The Global Bean Project (see page 113) through the network and are now part of it. The European Coordination Let’s Liberate Diversity (EC-LLD) has invited us to its annual forum to plan activities around seed reform and other key issues, and has offered support in knowledge sharing and participatory research.

Farmers’ seeds and farmers’ rights are really important, so we advocate for these, ensuring a voice for our sector in the decision making process at national level, and safeguarding our common traditional farming and culinary practices. The EU Green Deal framework with the Farm to Fork strategy at its heart can provide opportunities for farmers who are part of fair and environmentally-friendly local food systems that preserve biodiversity. Farmers’ varieties can be an important part of the EU policy response to climate change due to their tolerance and ability to adapt. However, the new CAP is unlikely to contribute to significant development of organic farming in the EU, unless draft CAP Strategic Plans are significantly improved in several Member States (according to a November 2021 analysis by IFOAM Organics Europe).

Building on existing connections, the network started as an initiative of AEGILOPS, the Greek Network for Biodiversity and Ecology in Agriculture, within the framework of the LIVESEED HORIZON 2020 project (Boosting Organic plant breeding and seed in Europe, 2017-2021). We received crucial support from Arche Noah’s project Balkan Beets.

Support collaboration and reform seed marketing legislation

In terms of policy changes, we need support for collaborative and participatory research, and for the creation of community seed banks. Training of farmers and seed breeders must be sustained.

The current reform of the EU Seed Marketing Legislation must support, rather than discriminate against, intra- specific and intra-varietal diversity. This would support adaptation to climate change, the transition to a more climate and environmentally friendly agriculture, local seed and food production, farmers’ rights, and healthier diets. It should also truly recognise and support the multiplicity of seed systems, and offer more choice to the full spectrum of farmers and growers.

The right to seeds is grounded in international law, in particular the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). The scope of the seed marketing legislation should be delineated by a strict definition of seed marketing limited to commercial activities targeting professional seed users. Peasant seed systems must not be regulated by seed marketing rules. Rules on seed health and quality control mechanisms should be adapted to the health risks and to the specific circumstances and scale of seed marketing.

Legislation on organics, patenting and GMOs

Although the new EU Regulation on organic production and labelling of organic products (2018/48) opens up a space for biodiversity to re-enter farms, since it enables organic farmers to save, produce and sell local plant genetic resources that are diverse (organic heterogeneous materials, or OHM), and organic varieties to be researched and bred, still this remains a very small step towards the needed change.

The patent system needs to be amended to facilitate diversity in plant breeding and access to genetic resources. Patent rights and the way they are granted leads to decreasing diversity in breeding endeavours and poses threats to plant breeding. Access to genetic resources is essential, nevertheless specific liberties of breeders and farmers are lost with the patentability of plant- related inventions.

EU GMO policy must be strengthened, in particular as regards consumers’ right to know, freedom of choice for breeders, farmers and processors and the democratic scrutiny of EU GMO decisions. EU deregulation of the regulatory regime for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) derived from genome editing and other new GM techniques will threaten consumers’ right to know what they chose or eat, freedom of choice for breeders, farmers and processors and scrutinise democratic EU GMO decisions.

This is an extract from “Rural Europe Takes Action – No more business as usual” published by ARC2020 and Forum Synergies in June 2022. The e-book is available here and a PDF version can be downloaded here. To order a hardcopy, contact info@forum-synergies.eu. 

 

Teaser photo credit: Fava, local product of Santorini… Michalis Mpelas’ shop at Akrotiri of Santorini…By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece – FavaUploaded by Yarl, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25306797