Rural Europe mobilizes | Seeds of collaboration

Ed. note: this article first appeared on ARC2020.eu. ARC2020 is a platform for agrifood and rural stakeholders working towards better food, agricultural 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 excerpt from Rural Europe Takes Action tells the story of the Balkan Seeds Network, a network of scientists and seed conservation organizations harnessing the rich biodiversity and agricultural heritage of South Eastern Europe to boost resilient food systems and establishing a collaborative paradigm for the Balkan region.

Building on the ideas of the Balkan Seeds Network and other initiatives presented in Chapter 6 “Seeds and Systems”, Rural Europe Takes Action calls on policy makers to empower people and places to rebuild failing food systems through a rural policy framework that enshrines the right to food and the right to seeds. This political 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 hard copy, contact [email protected]forum-synergies.eu.

political action

We must empower people and places to rebuild fractured food systems from the bottom up.

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

Seeds of collaboration

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

We are the Balkan Seeds Network – a network of seed scientists, grassroots, non-profit organizations 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 seed network Arche Noah.

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

By focusing on our shared geographic, social and cultural heritage, as well as community needs, we support each other in our shared mission to conserve, enrich and sustainably use plant genetic resources (PGR). We provide a strong cooperative framework within which we can collectively address our common goals, needs and problems – for the common good.

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

Seeds and information are exchanged in our network. The partners are already supporting each other by sharing their expertise. For example, Arche Noah, Austria, organized webinars to train our network on EU seed policy, and Frame of Life shared its know-how on seed hygiene with SITO Seeds (see page 111) . Networking has led to new opportunities for collaboration in areas such as EU seed policy, community seed banks and organic breeding. Some of our members have been 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 (CE-LLD) invited us to its annual forum to plan activities around seed reform and other key issues, and offered support in knowledge sharing and participatory research.

Peasant seeds and farmers’ rights are really important, which is why we defend them, guaranteeing a voice for our sector in the decision-making process at the national level and safeguarding our common traditional agricultural and culinary practices. The EU Green Deal frame with the From farm to fork The strategy at its heart can provide opportunities for farmers who enroll in fair and environmentally friendly local food systems that preserve biodiversity. Farmers’ varieties can play an important role in the EU’s policy response to climate change due to their tolerance and adaptability. However, the new CAP is unlikely to contribute to a significant development of organic farming in the EU, unless draft CAP strategic plans are significantly improved in several Member States (according to a November analysis 2021 from IFOAM Organic Europe).

Building on existing connections, the network began as an initiative of AEGILOPSthe Greek Network for Biodiversity and Ecology in Agriculture, within the framework of the LIVING HORIZON 2020 project (Boosting Organic plant selection and seed in Europe, 2017-2021). We received crucial support from Noah’s Arkthe 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 should be supported.

The current reform of European seed marketing legislation must support, rather than discriminate, intra-specific and intra-varietal diversity. This would support adaptation to climate change, the transition to more climate and environment friendly agriculture, local production of seeds and food, farmers’ rights and healthier diets. It should also recognize and genuinely support the multiplicity of seed systems and provide more choice to the full range of farmers and producers.

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

Legislation on biological products, patents and GMOs

Although the new EU regulation on organic production and labeling of organic products (2018/48) opens up space for biodiversity to return to farms, since it allows organic farmers to conserve, produce and sell diversified local plant genetic resources (heterogeneous biomaterials, or OHM) and biological varieties to be researched and selected, this remains a very small step towards the necessary change.

The patent system must be modified to facilitate diversity in plant breeding and access to genetic resources. Patent rights and the way they are granted lead to a reduction in the diversity of breeding efforts and threaten plant breeding. Access to genetic resources is essential, however the specific freedoms of breeders and farmers are lost with the patentability of plant-related inventions.

EU policy on GMOs needs to be strengthened, in particular as regards consumers’ right to know, freedom of choice for breeders, farmers and processors and democratic control of EU decisions in GMO material. EU deregulation of the regulatory regime for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) derived from genome editing and other new GMO techniques will threaten consumers’ right to know what they have chosen or eaten, the freedom of choice for breeders, farmers and processors and to control democratic EU decisions on GMOs.

This is an excerpt 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 hard copy, contact [email protected]forum-synergies.eu.

Teaser photo credit: Fava, local product of Santorini… Michalis Mpelas’ shop in 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

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