Seed exchange among farmers, the EU reform


On 11 March 2024, the ENVl Commission of the European Parliament voted its opinion on the proposal for a regulation on the production and marketing of plant reproductive material (PRMs), which includes the right of farmers to exchange seeds. (1) An in-depth analysis of the positions of the European Coordination of La Via Campesina.

1) Plant reproductive material, the reform project

The European rules on the production and trade of plant reproductive material of agricultural crops, vegetables, vines and fruit plants are currently dispersed in 10 directives, issued partly in the 60s and partly in the 2000s. (2)

The reform project provides for the synthesis of these rules in a single EU regulation, with the sole exclusion of forestry propagation materials and ornamental plants, as well as those intended for export to third countries. The new regulation:

– maintains the two basic criteria, registration of varieties and certification of individual batches of plant reproductive material

– introduces new requirements regarding entries in national registers, labeling and certification criteria, the Union register.

1.1) Registration of varieties in national registers

The registration of varieties in national registers allows the immediate marketing of goods, for 10 years, throughout the EU. For this purpose they are defined:

  • predefined categories (pre-basic, basic, certificate(s), standard)
  • heterogeneous material (i.e. material other than a variety or mixture of varieties, and of clones, including selected clones, multiclonal mixtures and monoclonal plant reproductive material)
  • different control systems (e.g. biomolecular) to inspect varietal identity and purity. Imports from third countries are permitted provided that the aforementioned requirements are respected.

1.2) Labeling and certification

Professional operators must be registered in the registers required by the reg. (EU) 2016/2021 for the protection of organisms harmful to plants, subject to authorization by the competent authorities.

The regulation scheme establishes batch packaging and sealing requirements, with production and marketing requirements in line with the ‘OECD seed systems’.

Is provided furthermore, the possibility of carrying out varietal technical tests to demonstrate agronomic value and sustainable use (value for sustainable cultivation and use, VSCU).

1.3) EU register

An EU registry collects the varieties registered at national level, registered in two categories:

– varieties with official description, subjected to distinction, homogeneity, stability and VSCU tests carried out exclusively by the competent authorities (3,4)

– conservation varieties with an officially recognized description, not subject to the aforementioned tests and thus subject to less rigorous marketing requirements.

1.4) Exemptions

Some exceptions are established to ensure greater flexibility for certain activities, materials and varieties, including conservation varieties, heterogeneous material, plant reproductive material sold to end users (e.g. non-professional gardeners), plant reproductive material marketed to banks, organizations and genetic networks or between them, as well as seeds exchanged in kind between farmers.

Exceptions are also foreseen for the marketing of:

  • plant reproductive material for breeders for the development of new varieties
  • plant reproductive material of varieties not yet registered, used for the multiplication of plant reproductive material or for analysis
  • plant reproductive material, in case of temporary supply difficulties
  • seeds not yet definitively certified
  • emergency measures and temporary experiments.

2) European Coordination Via Campesina, the position of family and peasant agriculture

The European Coordination of La Via Campesina (European Coordination Via Campesina, ECVC) expresses the interests of family and peasant farms, as well as agricultural workers across Europe, through the synergy of 31 national and regional organizations in 21 countries of the Old Continent. These include Confédération paysanne in France, FUGEA in Belgium, ARI (Associazione Rurale Italia, or Assorurale) in Italy.

ECVC extension considers the reform under consideration as an important opportunity to finally see farmers’ rights to exchange seeds implemented in the EU. The exchange of seeds from one’s own crops is an essential practice for the dynamic management of seeds on the farm and the renewal of agrobiodiversity. And it is the premise of food sovereignty, understood as the right to land and self-determination over the means of production. (5)

The exchange of seeds it is still prohibited in some Member States, which thus violate the principles stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP, 2018). The European Commission in turn, in the proposal under consideration, presents some critical issues for farmers’ rights to seeds and agrobiodiversity. The European Coordination of La Via Campesina (ECVC) therefore asks MEPs to pay attention to the following points. (6)

2.1) Farmers’ rights

Brussels’ proposal defines any transfer of plant reproductive material (PRM), even free of charge, as ‘commercialisation’ (excluding private use, outside of commercial activities). This means that farmers who exchange seeds with other farmers should qualify as ‘professional operators’, like seed companies and their distributors. A profoundly unfair aberration since the main activity of farmers is food production and the exchange of seeds pursues objectives of selection, conservation and dynamic management (e.g. varietal mixtures), as well as peasant solidarity such as seed companies.

Marketing rules they must therefore be applied – with simplification in favor of micro-enterprises – only to farmers whose main activity is the sale of seeds, or to those who multiply PRMs on behalf of seed companies. The notion of ‘marketing’ must therefore be limited to transfers ‘with a view to marketing’ only. It is also necessary to amend Article 30 of the proposal under consideration, to allow family and peasant farms (94,8% of the total in the EU, Eurostat 2020 data) to exchange seeds and other PRMs in quantities adequate to the needs of agricultural production.

2.2) Heterogeneous material, conservation varieties and patents

ECVC extension welcomes the introduction of the new categories of non-organic heterogeneous material and conservation varieties – which allow for greater diversity in seed supply – but has patent concerns.

The proposed regulation under examination is in fact connected to the proposal for ‘deregulation’ of new GMOs (New Genomic Techniques, NGTs), approved by the European Parliament on 7 February 2024. Heterogeneous non-biological material and new conservation varieties could in fact represent a gateway to patented NGTs.

The introduction of NGTs patented in these categories (pursuant to art. 47, ed.) could lead to the loss of the right to reuse the seeds of the harvest, as this right is guaranteed only for seeds covered by a breeder’s right. The ECVC therefore calls for a ban on the introduction of NGTs into these categories and reaffirms the need to guarantee the traceability of new GMOs at every stage of the supply chain (7,8).

They must then be rejected the ‘sustainability tests’ of varieties (VSCU), since sustainability must be assessed in relation to the agronomic practices adopted. An organic seed, for example, could be ‘less sustainable’ than industrial varieties adapted to intensive monocultures in a conventional agro-industrial system, despite being more sustainable in a production system based on agroecology and respect for biodiversity.

3) European Parliament, opinion of the ENVI committee

The non-binding opinion of the ENVI (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) Commission of the European Parliament, on 11 March 2024, introduced a series of changes to the proposal for a regulation under consideration:

– the production and exchange of seeds and other non-GMO PRMs for purposes other than their simple marketing, even when farmers receive payment for the costs incurred, must be exempted from the application of the marketing rules

– other exemptions should be provided to facilitate the conservation of some PRMs, recognizing the specific characteristics of heterogeneous non-GMO PRMs (which provide agrobiodiversity crucial for resilience in agriculture) as well as the functions of gene banks and other conservation organizations

– the value of a variety depends first and foremost on the conditions in which it develops and is bred. VSCU should therefore be tested in different production methods, particularly in agricultural systems where synthetic pesticides are not used, such as in organic farming

– ‘sustainability tests’ (VSCU) must not lead to the exclusion of varieties when this choice reduces the biodiversity of crops. VSCU tests should also be optional for fruit and vegetables, due to the costs they entail for small and medium-sized seed producers

– the legislative proposal under consideration must entail an amendment to Directive 98/44/EC on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions, in order to maintain free access to genetic resources. (9)

3.1) Proposed changes in ENVI

The main changes of the ENVI commission to the proposal for a regulation under consideration concern:

– exclusion of new GMOs (NGTs of category 1 and 2) from the notion of ‘heterogeneous material’

– removal of the proposal to amend Regulation (EU) 2018/848 (on the organic system)

– exemption from marketing rules for transfers of PRMs between banks, organizers and genetic networks

– exclusion from the scope of the regulation of PRMs sold or transferred in any other way, whether free of charge or not, for example in research activities in one’s own field (on-farm) and research carried out for the dynamic conservation of genetic resources. With specific forecasts for PRMs produced by farmers for their own use

– exclusion of F1 hybrid varieties from ‘conservation varieties’

– exclusion of varieties covered by intellectual property rights (IPRs), GMOs and category 1 NGTs from the exemptions provided for mixtures for preservation

– exclusion of IPRs on conservation varieties, their parts and/or genetic components if intended for conservation, research, breeding and/or training, including on-farm

– inclusion of the definitions of plant breeding and ‘dynamic conservation of plant genetic resources’

– the adoption of delegated acts by the Commission will have to take into account the consultations carried out with the stakeholders involved with the heterogeneous material

– farmers must be able to exchange seeds also with economic compensation that covers production costs, as well as free of charge (art. 30)

– the exemptions provided for varieties not yet registered and temporary authorizations should be excluded for old and new GMOs, as well as for PRMs from third countries not yet certified and marketed in the EU

– provisions on PRMs marketed to end users, between banks, organizations and genetic networks, and in-kind exchanges between farmers should be excluded from the obligations of professional operators producing PRMs

– inclusion of specific requirements for the registration of herbicide-tolerant varieties (to avoid the onset of resistance in weeds) and other characteristics that may lead to undesirable agronomic effects, including damage to pollinators and the development of wild pollinator plants type

– the VCSU has been integrated with productivity requirements, and must take into account a superior characteristic in at least one of the existing agricultural production systems where the tests are to be carried out (e.g. conventional, organic). The VCSU assessment does not replace the assessment for GMO and NGT plants.

4) Provisional conclusions

La Campesina Via has so far managed to express the interests of family and peasant agriculture, in contrast to those of Coldiretti and other large agricultural confederations that have been working for years alongside the four global monopolists of seeds, GMOs and pesticides (Big 4).

The MEPs of the AGRI (Agriculture and Rural Development) Commission are voting on the report that will be presented to the plenary session of the European Parliament on 19 March. (10) Updates on the identity of friends and enemies of the protesting farmers will follow.

Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna


(1) See

(2) Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the production and marketing of plant reproductive material in the Union, amending Regulations (EU) 2016/2031, 2017/625 and 2018/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Council Directives 66/401/EEC, 66/402/EEC, 68/193/EEC, 2002/53/EC, 2002/54/EC, 2002/55/EC, 2002/56/EC, 2002 /57/EC, 2008/72/EC and 2008/90/EC (Regulation on plant reproductive material) (COM/2023/414 final).

(3) To be included, such varieties must, as a whole, provide an improvement over other varieties of the same genera or species in the following respects: (i) yield, including yield stability and yield conditions with low use of production factors; (ii) tolerance/resistance to biotic stresses, including plant diseases caused by nematodes, fungi, bacteria, viruses, insects and other harmful organisms; iii) tolerance/resistance to abiotic stresses, including adaptation to climate change conditions; iv) more efficient use of natural resources, such as water and nutrients; v) reduced need for external production factors, such as plant protection products and fertilisers; vi) characteristics that improve the sustainability of storage, processing and distribution; vi) quality or nutritional characteristics.

(4) Controls for the VSCU can also be carried out by professional operators under the official supervision of the competent authorities, whose premises are subject to audits carried out by them.

(5) See the International Treaty on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (ITPGRFA) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in rural areas (UNDROP)

(6) ECVC. Unacceptable attacks on peasants’ rights on seeds: ECVC calls for a rejection of the European Commission proposal on plant reproductive material. 24.10.23

(7) ECVC. European Commission proposal on new GMOs: Towards the appropriation of all seeds by the patents of a few multinationals. 18.7.23

(8) Compromise amendment (CA) 7 theorizes that all random mutagenesis techniques, including those applied in vitro to plant cells, constitute a conventional breeding process, in clear contrast to CJEU ruling C-688/21 ( 2023)

(9) To avoid destabilizing the plant variety rights system, which guarantees fair remuneration to breeders without limiting access to innovation, PRMs obtained from new genomic techniques (NGT) should not be patentable. If anything, patents should only be allowed on organic material derived from it


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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in Food Technologies and Biotechnologies, qualified food technologist, he follows the research and development area. With particular regard to European research projects (in Horizon 2020, PRIMA) where the FARE division of WIISE Srl, a benefit company, participates.