I wouldn’t usually use this blog for personal political musings, but as a herbalist, nutritionist and organic gardener there have been multiple assaults on my freedoms which have been a direct consequence of Britain’s EU membership. In each case the directives in question have had a corporatist, big-business agenda behind them and have clearly been designed to close down competition from the smaller, and generally more ethical and natural companies.
Products derived from natural materials are problematic for big businesses for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they often cannot be patented. Secondly, it is relatively easy for start-up companies to manufacture such products, increasing competition, and while this might be good for consumers, shareholders of big-businesses are not so keen. It is not surprising, therefore, that big business interests form the lions share of high level (and closed door) lobby meetings with EU commissioners.
Below are four areas of EU natural products regulation that have affected me and the public directly or indirectly. Each of them play’s to this corporatist agenda:
1. Herbal medicine regulations (Directive 2004/24/EC)
The public has had access to herbal medicines, over the counter or from apothecaries and chemists since Victorian times and earlier. Indeed in the 1920’s you would have seen such striking sights as huge black bryony roots hanging in the windows of grocers shops. Throughout the 20th century health-food shops and supermarkets could stock any herbal medicine they liked.
All of that changed with the EU Herbal Medicines directive. Whilst there were some good points about the directive – reducing exaggerated health claims, insisting on purity of product etc – the market was already moving this way under UK domestic legislation. For example, herbs which were shown to have toxicity if used incorrectly, such as Datura (Jimson’s weed) and Convallaria (Lily of the Valley) were already banned for over the counter sale to the public, but were still legal for fully trained Medical Herbalists if deemed appropriate following a one to one consultation.
The 2004 directive, which came into force fully in 2011, banned herbal medicines that had not been registered. Like with the seeds, this directive has a clear anti-competitive measure, requiring manufacturers to adopt a raft of EU legislation. There is a vast and complex system of fees for registering a herbal product, which can quickly add up to tens of thousands of pounds per product, which favours larger manufacturers and popular products. This has led to a contraction in the market, and reduced choice for consumers. It has also wasted vast amounts of committee member time, money and effort in the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (the oldest Professional body of Medical Herbalists in the world, of which I have been a member since I completed my four year full time course in Western Herbal Medicine in 1993).
2. Registered vegetable seed (Directive 2002/55/EC)
The EU directive on vegetable seeds requires all seeds that are sold in the EU to be registered for purity of variety. This was sold on the basis of consumer protection – after all, no one is going to be happy if they buy a pack of Big Boy sweet pepper seeds, expecting plump bell peppers, but after months of careful tending are faced with a crop of inedible misshapen chilli peppers, right?
The first problem with this directive is that small manufacturers simply couldn’t afford the registration process, especially for rare varieties that they only sold in small quantities. Many went bust, or reduced their range. On the other hand big seed companies could easily afford the registration fee, and were happy to focus on their most profitable seed lines. Such anti-competitive behaviour is not good for the public, as choice has been seriously limited, whilst the multi-nationals have been laughing all the way to the bank.
The second issue is a bit more complex to explain, so here goes… Modern seed varieties are produced under carefully controlled conditions so that the parent plants only pollinate each other. No pollen from other varieties is allowed in to the polytunnels where these seeds are produced. Such varieties are genetically ‘narrow’, coming as they do from just two specific parent plants. Such seeds are labelled ‘F1’ or ‘F1 hybrids’ if they are produced this way. Usually some desirable property such as height, flavour or speed of growth is present in these first generation seeds, which disappears if you save the seed for a second generation – even if you only let them pollinate each other. The combination of genes providing the desired trait is lost by further crossing.
For modern seeds not labelled F1, seed can be saved from second, third, forth (and so on) generations, and will retain the desirable genetic traits, as long as they only pollinate amongst themselves. In this case there are a narrow range of genes that despite various combinations from generation to generation tend to retain the traits.
Both of the above are loved by seed companies. Partly because it means they can clearly sell seed varieties with distinct qualities – for example, ‘Resistafly’ is a carrot variety that does not produce the signature chemicals that attract the carrot root fly pest. However, a more important consideration is that they can patent such varieties, monopolising their production. This has an added economic advantage for the seed companies, as growers cannot save the seed each year as is will become genetically contaminated from other varieties if open pollinated. Saving and growing the next year will lead to disappointing results with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colours or other qualities amongst the vegetables. So gardeners and farmers have to go back to the seed company year after year. Kerching £££!
What few people realise is that there is another way of producing seed varieties – by open pollination. Instead of isolating the plants in polytunnels so they only pollinate each other, this method allows plants to pollinate with whatever pollen is in the local environment. The plants will contain a wide variety of genes and considerable variation in characteristics (at first). This is not desirable, as many of the plants will have sub-standard qualities. The trick in this method is to select the best plants and save their seed, resowing it each year, but again allowing it to be open pollinated.
The effect of this method is that through a kind of manipulated natural selection the percentage of good offspring gradually increases. Unlike F1 and closed pollinated varieties the seed can never promise to come 100% true to type (hence not possible to get on the EU seed register), but it gets closer and closer each year. It achieves this with a broad genetic base, rather than a narrow one. This confers considerable advantages: (1) The seeds are adapted to a wide range of conditions not just one or two key traits, making them particularly robust. (2) growers can save seed from year to year, and this will improve its adaptation to their local micro-climate, soil and weather etc over time. (3) there is no dependency on big agricultural firms. (4) This wider genetic base confers greater resilience to all sorts of threats, climatic, pest, disease etc, and better enables the crop to persist over time, unlike crops like the banana, which has a very narrow genetic base rendering it highly vulnerable to catastrophe or one sort or another. This of course is how all seed was produced up until the 20th century. Until big business started muscling in on the act.
With the introduction of the EU ban, old varieties of seed, often referred to as heirloom varieties, were threatened with extinction. In the face of this threat to genetic diversity the propagation of such seeds fell to charitable bodies. As they were not allowed to sell such seeds they had to come up with creative ways to make them available whilst remaining financially viable. In some cases you can get these robust seeds by paying to join a club. Your membership fee pays for the charity to grow the seed, and they then ‘give’ you a share of the seed they grow. Organisations doing this include Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library (Previously known as The Henry Doubleday Research Association). As they explain, growing heritage seeds has many benefits:
- supporting the conservation of unusual vegetable varieties for future generations
- increasing biodiversity in your garden
- able to save your own seeds from one generation to the next, our open-pollinated varieties, unlike F1 hybrids, will come true-to-type.
- helping to maintain genetic diversity within vegetable crops, which may be useful to the plant breeders of the future
No thanks to the EU and its anti-competitive big-business agenda.
3. EU Directive on Food Supplements (FSD, 2002)
When this directive was passed into EU law in 2002, the Alliance of Natural Health (ANH) claimed that it “effectively brought about a ban on 300 nutrients included in 5000 health products, most of which were in dietary supplements closest to food forms” (ref).
At that time, EU directives only passed into UK law with a vote by a parliamentary committee. However, there were concerns expressed by some Labour MPS of the day about the handling of that process:
Kate Hoey MP (Vauxhall) revealed what happened: “I was a member of this committee until I said, very honestly, that I would vote against the regulations.” She, together with five other MPs, were “unceremoniously removed” from the committee the night before the vote took place and replaced with MPs who voted in favour of the FSD. This obviously leads to great suspicion about the manipulation of such regulations.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (Islington), said at the time: “The FSD is a product of ruthless lobbying tactics by the pharmaceutical industry which is not keen on the diversity of supply of vitamin supplements available in health food shops.” He backed the ANH move to legally challenge the Directive.
Not surprisingly, there was a bias towards pharmaceutical products containing synthesised vitamins, and away from food extracted (called ‘organic’) vitamins. According to the Institute of Science in Society at the time:
The EU Commission has designated a list of permissible nutrients called ‘The Positive List.’ Specialist vitamin manufactures have expressed concern that their products containing organic ingredients, excluded from the ‘List’, are being compromised by synthetic or inorganic equivalents that are on the ‘List.’ All attempts to include a number of organic vitamins and minerals have been refused. Not only that, but to register their high quality products for sale could cost up to £250,00 per nutrient plus evidence of their safety. All nutrients must be paid for and registered by August 2005, putting small, large and medium suppliers of food supplements under intense pressure.
Maximum doses or Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals will be negotiated over the next 18 months. Levels are to be set by the EU Scientific Committee to Food (SCF), who are not accountable to any government or parliament and have banned 300 nutrients so far (See box 1). Two commonly occurring vitamins, which have a wealth of scientific study to support their validity, are vitamin C and vitamin B6. The ANH fear RDA doses will be rendered so low that consumers will have to buy much more of the product to receive their current nutritional dose or that they might disappear from the shelves altogether.
4. Registration of Pesticides
Like the three preceding examples, the EU directive requiring the registration of pesticides is promoted on a consumer protection basis, which is hard to argue against. And yet again, the casualties of this ‘reasonable’ policy have been the smaller producers, often providing products that were suitable for organic gardening.
One such was Rotenone, commonly sold in the form of Derris dust. It was made from the dried roots of a Southeast Asian plant, and provided control of sap sucking pests. Like all pesticides, there were health concerns around its use, and it may have eventually been banned anyway as so many ‘traditional’ pesticides have been, but in the case of Derris, it was removed from the market because the small manufacturer couldn’t afford the registration cost.
Another natural product that has suffered from this EU directive is Armillatox – manufactured from plant compounds, it was originally used in gardens as an effective control for fungi, such as the highly destructive honey fungus. The manufacturers website says:
Under European legislation the active ingredients of all pesticides have to be reviewed, the cost of raising the data for the review is estimated to be £3 million – to a small company the cost is prohibitive. Therefore as from 25th July 2003, Armillatox has become ‘Armillatox Soap Based Outdoor Cleaner‘ so taking it out of the pesticides regulations – the formulation remains the same.
Regardless of your views on pesticides, these are yet further examples of EU directives giving big-business a competitive edge.
This, in part, is why I will be voting to leave the EU on June the 23rd.