Center for Bio-diversitet


Bio-diversity - it is a long way from Rio to Brussels !

The Rio Convention of 1992 specifies:
... that the countries are to see to preservation of the breeds/varieties in the surroundings where they have developed their specific properties …….
...that the countries are to respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge and practices found among the local population and being part of a traditional lifestyle which are of relevance to the preservation of the manifold breeds/varieties.

However, what are the realities of the EU in 1997?

Texts and photos by: Heine Refsing, Center for Bio-diversity

In the UN Rio-Convention on biological diversity, a number of very good and beautiful objectives were adopted on how all UN member countries were to preserve the biological diversity regarding both the wild species and improved domestic animals and cultural plants. Then all efforts were to be launched to secure the survival of the largest possible number of sorts and breeds even if they have gone out of production and both in genetic banks and in real breeding.

As regards the first count, the developing countries have a hard time living up to that ? and that is understandable; as long as the population is undernourished, it must be difficult to get grants for frozen stocks of small tubes with sample specimens.

That the EU countries are lacking behind as regard the last count, is, however, difficult to understand. The fact, that not much has been done to stimulate and support the work of preserving sort and genes within the areas where their craddle was, can probably be explained by the fact that the Rio Convention was not adopted until 1992, and the EU organisation is a slow starter. However, the facts that EU regulations are full of intricacies establishing obstacles for resolute people’s endeavours to preserve the sorts and the breeds in their original forms and even more sorts are referred to the sideline not far from definitive extinction are direct contraventions of the intentions of the Rio Convention. It is right out incredible! If a developing country had had the audacity to do something similar, it would stand to lose assistance and received threats as to stopping trade agreements.

EU and regulations
The EU is in many ways the project of good intentions; however, the EU organisation is large. and the reality as the millenium is coming to an end is complex, and together these two factors may harm the overview and cohesion. And it is also here that the explanation of the defacto EU fight against biological diversity is to be found as there is hardly anyone in the EU organisation wishing to wilfully steamroll the Rio Convention. However, when the overview disappears, the pressure groups are given a free hand, and then it becomes difficult to have good intentions turned into action.
The regulations creating problems were not at all formulated to regulate the biological diversity at all ? that is, so to speak, a side-effect. The unfortunate regulations were made to protect producers and consumers against botched work and bad quality. However, they apply too widely and do not contain exemptions as to minimum limits leaving space for preservation of the marginal sorts and breeds in small-scale production and trade.

Cultural plants
In order for a seed sorts to be sold in the EU, they have to be registered on a sort list by a seed company, and that is so costly that only sorts of a relatively high turnover are profitable to register. These regulations were created to protect breeders from sowing something which does not correspond to the description of it. It is fine when talking about a market garden sowing a couple of hectars with a promising sort of cabbage so that they have a certain degree of certainty that the work of a whole season is not wasted. However, it is overkill when the same rules apply to seeds sold in small bags of 5 g. In such a case there is no relationship between the consumer protection and the damage to the biological diversity done by the regulations. Besides, the protection is not so good either as it is fully legal to sell registered sorts in Denmark although the impressive text and pictures of the bag are based on Dutch experience. It is tragical as, in this way, we exchange old, regionally adapted sorts giving a smaller but stable yield for international, registered sorts which documented good yields,bur do not keep their promise when planted in soil at Jelling which is neither optimal nor ”well sprayed”.

The EU wishes for homogeneity are, in the nature of things, on a collision course with the wishes for diversity. There are cucumber sorts which are white, yellow, round and even thorny, and strawberry sorts can be found which have pink, white or yellow-green berries, and, as to shape, the berries of some sorts may be almost pentadented or just skew and flat like our own Dybdahl. That kind of sorts with peculiar looks may have a chance of surviving as specialities, but how are they ever going to squeeze into regulations on homogeneity? The rules on product homogeneity are spacious enough for curved cucumbers and lilac carrots to be sold in the marketplace. However, when ”substandard” sorts are stricken from the sort lists, it may often be practically impossible for a small market gardener to acquire seeds or bedding plants.

Domestic animals
As to animals, the veterinary regulations cause problems for the old breeds and their friends. A fresh example is the plan for combating the viral Newcastle disease. The disease does not affect humans, but all  gallinaceous birds, and it is transferred by many other bird species ranging from sparrows to pigeons.
The most important reason of all for preserving domestic breeds which have gone out of production is the wish to preserve other genetic properties than the purely productive ones, in particular properties such as adaptability to the environment in general and the ability to develop resistance to diseases. However, these properties will only be maintained and developed if the animals are exposed to the strains of the environment and vira of the diseases they develop resistance against.
The EU fight against Newcastle disase comprises all tame poultry, but not wild birds. That means that a pheasant kept in captivity is comprised by the endeavours, whereas a wildlife pheasant falls outside this framework. That means that the infection exists freely in nature, which is unavoidable, as it is totally impossible to exterminate a viral disease with many different host species. Therefore it is not a tilt at windmills, but a fight against the free fowls of the air!
The fight is conducted in somewhat different ways in the individual countries. In Denmark the whole flock is slaughtered if a single fowl turns out to be infected. Seen in a preservation perspective, it is very unfortunate because exactly the fowls surviving contact with the infection are the one possessing the valuable genetic properties we wish to preserve. In other countries, they practice a variety of other arrangements such as vaccination; they are more considerate to the people investing time in looking after our living cultural heritage with fodder and water until the next generation acquire their own house and garden and take over. However, seen in a preservation perspective, vaccination is just as meaningless as it protects the fowl against the natural selection of resistance to disease. If animals are protected against the natural evolution of diseases, one may end up with preserving an empty shell resembling the old breeds to the point as regards colour and shape, but which do not possess their properties as these properties have not been utilised for generations.

An obvious solution would be to exempt small stocks of fowl from the fight against disease together with their wildlife family. Vaccinations could be allowed among commercial stocks in order to protect them against enourmous losses in case diseases break out among the weakended, but productive industrial fowl. And then leave the old breeds to the whims of nature together with the wild birds. In that way the small poultry keepings would be a large and cheap breeding centre from which breeding material could always be fetched in order to add vital genes to the production poultry which may become very important if once the free-range fowls become the norm rather than the exception.

Similar conditions apply to other domestic animals and other diseases, and as long as the diseases do not affect humans, one should, in the name of diversity, establish a different standard for small keepings of old breeds than the one applying to mass production of industrial animals. And even as regards a disease like salmonella, it is a well known fact that hereditary resistance can be produced in a breed or be lost depending on breeding goals, and as salmonella bacteria exist in the natural environment, an animal such as a free-range fowl would have to possess genes with a reasonable resistance in its hereditary material. Therefore,it is a fine objective to exterminate salmonella bacteria in industrial chicken farms, but not so wise to apply that standard to small hobby keepings in people’s back yard or free-range fowls altogether. People rarely fall ill from eating their own fowls both because very few people would eat a sick fowl and also because the process of cleaning it yourself provides with a more down-to-earth feeling of the value of preparing the creature in a responsible manner.

From counteracting to promoting
To remove the inexpedient side-effects of the regulations, which in themselves are probably quite reasonable, is easy and quite free of charge as it simply consists in introducing a triviality limit and deregulate everythings falling below the limit and then hope that resolute people will preserve the biological diversity in their back yards, and that they will undoubtedly do to a certain extent.

Avoiding to create stumbling blocks for the proliferation of unmarketable sorts is, however, only a small first step in the right direction. It should not remain unobserved that the reason for taking a sort out of mainstream production is the fact that the economic yield is too small for profitable cultivation or breeding of it. If seed approval fees are removed, it may save a small group up and above the or close to the profit of the mainstream sorts, however, it is far from certain that exactly these sorts possess the properties we may need in 25 or 200 years.

Therefore, making the regulations more lenient may please both owners of gardens and small seed selling companies; however, if the Rio Convention is to be adhered to in reality, .a next step must be taken to somehow stimulate and support the preservation of sorts and breeds for their own sake. In the long run, only real ”freaks” wish  to keep and nurture a variety year after year because their great-grandchildren may need some property or other it may contain in its hereditary mass. So if the Rio Convention has to be adhered to, there must be other incentives than just the one that it is fun to serve a thorny cucumber to your mother-in-law; and, in reality, the EU could be an excellent institutional framework for creating such incentives.

Until that is effected, both animals and plants will be left to fashion whims, and that is not the best guarantee of preservation. In additon, the animals are in the hands of breeders only breeding for shows, and the breeding programmes practiced in this context rarely allows for preservation of the inherent properties of the breeds.

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latest update January 2004.

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Center for Bio-diversitet is an independent NGO/CSO information-center. We aim to promote biological diversity and the protection and conservation of old and new varieties with valuable characteristics.

Editor: Heine Refsing