Ninth Report of Session 2013-14 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

3   Plant reproductive material



COM(13) 262

Draft Regulation on the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law)

Legal baseArticle 43(2) TFEU; co-decision; QMV
Document originated6 May 2013
Deposited in Parliament17 May 2013
DepartmentEnvironment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of considerationEM of 21 May 2013 and Minister's letter of 26 June 2013
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in CouncilSee para 3.8 below
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionNot cleared; further information awaited


3.1  Plant reproductive material in the form of seeds and other types of material (such as young plants) is an important first step in the agri-food chain, with farmers, growers, forestry managers and gardeners needing assurance as to the identity of this material in terms of yield and disease resistance, and its quality (for example, purity and germination rate). Similar assurance is also needed by governments for food security purposes.

3.2   The Commission points out that the EU has over the last 50 years built up a body of legislation, comprising 12 Directives and some 90 supplementary acts, to provide these assurances. The majority of these measures were adopted between 1966 and 1971, and the Commission says that, although these have been updated, they are quite diverse, not only in their technical background, but also in their approaches, and that this has led to uncertainties and discrepancies in implementation between Member States, creating a need for harmonisation, and for a reduction in the cost and administrative burden involved. It also notes the importance of adapting to technical progress in plant breeding, and to the rapid evolution of European and global markets in plant reproductive material.

The current proposal

3.3  The current legislation comprises two main elements:

Registration of new varieties

The registration requirements vary according to the type of plant or crop, with those for the main agricultural crops, grasses and commercial vegetables being more demanding, given their importance for food production, than for vegetable seeds to gardeners and ornamentals. Thus, cereal varieties are registered on the National List (of varieties) based on field data demonstrating distinctness, uniformity and stability and value for cultivation and use (such as yield and resistance to pests and diseases), whereas vegetable seeds are registered on a simpler basis, providing a recognised description which is accepted by officials without requiring field data. Certain categories of forest basic material are also registered in National List.

Quality standards for marketing of seeds and other planting material

The quality standards to be met before sale are varietal identity and standards such as purity (for example, freedom from weeds) and germination rate, with the approach to assessing these again varying according to the type of plant and its use. Given their importance, assurance for the main agricultural crops and grasses is provided through an officially controlled certification process involving field inspection and seed testing, with the seed then being sold as certified. In the case of commercial vegetables and seeds for gardeners, the producer has responsibility for these quality standards and sells standard seed. Seed testing is also required for forest reproductive material, and, whilst there is no official minimum quality standard, seed purity does determine how the material (in lots) can be marketed.

3.4  The broad intention of this proposal is to update and simplify the current body of legislation in this area, and to clarify and harmonise existing approaches and practices throughout the EU. In particular, it would consolidate the current legislation into one new Regulation which would be directly applicable, whilst also including additional powers for the Commission to develop through delegated and implementing acts further requirements in the future, some of which will be key to understanding the scope and impact of the legislation. 

3.5   In general, however, the scope and intention of the legislation would remain largely as at present, with no fundamental changes being made to the two components of assurance, and the focus continuing to be on variety registration and quality standards for marketing, where the requirements are already familiar to (and well established in) the plant breeding and seeds marketing sectors for commercial food production. At the same time, the proposal would introduce a number of possible changes, including:

  • a new requirement for mandatory fees for variety registration and certification to quality standards (with a mandatory exemption of micro-businesses employing fewer than 10 people and with an annual turnover no greater than 2 million);
  • scope for the registration of so-called 'heterogeneous material', in order to facilitate developments in ecological plant breeding;
  • an exemption from variety registration for niche material marketed in small quantities by micro-businesses;
  • a possible requirement that all new vegetable varieties should undergo field-based testing for distinctness, uniformity and stability as a basis for registration;
  • harmonisation across the EU of the requirements for sustainable value for cultivation and use;
  • scope for breeders to register directly with the EU register; and
  • new registration requirements for ornamentals and other species currently exempted under derogation or not covered by the current legislation.

The Government's view

3.6  The Government's views are set out in an Explanatory Memorandum of 21 May 2013 from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord de Mauley), together with further material supplied with his letter of 26 June.

3.7  He points out that it will be necessary to seek clarification from the Commission during negotiations, and that, given the scope for additional requirements through delegated and implementing acts, it is difficult at this stage to fully understand the proposal's implications and impacts. Nevertheless, he says that the Government broadly welcomes and supports the Commission's intention to simplify this regime, and he notes that the key elements would continue as at present. At the same time, he also observes that an initial analysis suggests that there are a number of issues on which further clarification is needed, noting:

  • that harmonisation of requirements for sustainable value for cultivation and use across the EU seems impractical, given the differences in climate and crop use, and that inappropriate requirements in breeding programmes risk undermining significant market driven traits, such as yield;
  • that the possibility that all new vegetable varieties may require testing for distinctness, uniformity and stability as a basis for registration and access to the market would potentially limit the number of new varieties for gardeners and specialised uses because of the costs this would involve;
  • that there is a possible gap in the traceability of forestry reproductive material, as (unlike the current Directive) there is no requirement to notify intra-community movements;
  • that requiring Member States to exempt micro-businesses from registration fees will need further consideration to assess how this would work in practice, particularly as it would have implications for the UK's current approach in this sector, where fees are currently collected from such businesses;
  • the possible extension of registration and certification requirements and associated additional costs to species and sectors currently exempted under derogation or not covered by the current regime;
  • that the extension of the definition for professional operators to include the landowners or managers of tree seed stands, in relation to forestry reproductive material, would be unwelcome as these stands are not normally managed for commercial purposes; and
  • that an extension of audit by the EU's Plant Varieties Agency to all variety registration processes would lead to additional costs for businesses and competent authorities.

3.8  On the other hand, he also suggests that direct EU registration and formalising current practices, such as acceptance across the EU of field data on distinctness, uniformity and stability, will benefit plant breeders; that the scope to register 'heterogeneous material' will be beneficial for organic farmers; and that the exemption from variety registration for niche market material is potentially beneficial for small-scale seed producers.

3.9  The Minister says that his officials are continuing to identify impacts and benefits from the new regulation, and that the Government will produce a fuller Impact assessment when there is greater understanding of the detailed requirements, including those to be set out in delegated and implementing acts. In the meantime, negotiations are continuing in the Council, but, as this proposal is part of a wider package covering animal health, plant health and official food and feed controls, these are unlikely to be completed before the European Parliament elections in June 2014.


3.10  The scrutiny of documents which consolidate, and amend, existing EU legislation presents major difficulties, as it is virtually impossible, without a close knowledge of the measure(s) in question, to identify in any detail their content or the changes which are being made. Those considerations are particularly acute in the case of a proposal of this kind, which aims to update and simplify a large number of detailed and technical measures going back over many years. The role of the Explanatory Memorandum provided by the Government is therefore more than usually important in such cases in enabling a proper assessment to be made of a document's importance, and a coherent Report to be provided to the House.

3.11  Since we did not feel that the Minister's initial Explanatory Memorandum provided us with adequate guidance, we asked him to clarify his comments, which he did subsequently in a note attached to his letter of 26 June 2013, the contents of which are set out earlier in this chapter. These demonstrate that, whilst the UK welcomes the approach set out in the proposal, there are a number of issues which will need to be clarified, including those arising from the use of delegated and implementing acts by the Commission.

3.12  In view of this, we can do little more at present than to report the situation to the House, retain the document under scrutiny, and ask the Government to keep us informed of developments.

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