Business (2005)

Saatgut Treuhand Verwaltung

"Saatgut Treuhand Verwaltungs GmbH", represented through CEO Mr Dirk Otten earns a BigBrotherAward for collecting data about farmers, for taking thousands of farmers unwilling to give their data to court, for procuring customers’ data from cooperatives and clandestine test-shopping at farmers’ shops. The farmers were suspected by Saatgut Treuhand to use potatos or other crops from their own harvests for next year’s plantings. For establishing a centralised control structure for the collection of fines as a service to the seed industry.
Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward in the category "Politics" goes to the Saatgut-Treuhand Verwaltungs GmbH Bonn represented by CEO Dirk Otten.

Farmers receive letters from lawyers, fields are examined, customer data retrieved from farming cooperatives. More than 2,500 farmers refuse to reveal information and have already been sued. And undercover test buyers of Saatgut Treuhand make their rounds, buying potatoes from farms as evidence.

What's going on? Which criminal offence are farmers charged with? Spraying dangerous poison mixtures? Polluting groundwater with liquid manure? Secretly growing genetically modified plants?

No, even worse: these farmers are suspected of keeping crops they have grown to use them as seeds in the following year - sowing their own harvest.

It makes one wonder: farmers have been doing this for thousands of years - sowing part of their own harvest. Where is the problem? Well, since the 1990s there is an international agreement (a revision of the so-called UPOV convention1) that found its way into EU and German law. A license fee must be paid for seeds registered by a breeder, and not only once when the seed is purchased but (after a change in the German Variety Protection Law in 1997) every following year as well, even if the seed is taken from one's own harvest. These are the so-called "re-seeding fees" (Nachbaugebühren). And to collect these fees from farmers, Saatgut-Treuhand ("seed trust") turned to action.

A seed registered with the German Federal Plant Varieties Office (Bundessortenamt) is given protection ("Plant Breeder's Rights") lasting 25 years for cereals and 30 years for potatoes. Plant breeders can collect license fees during this time whenever this kind of seed is sold.

Intermission: Linda - a potato variety becomes "illegal"

The full absurdity of this license and re-seeding fee business is made obvious by the story of "Linda". "Linda" is a potato variety and was about to reach its 30th birthday - thus becoming license free. The breeder company Böhm/Europlant didn't take this as a reason to celebrate, though - instead, it terminated Linda's listing on the National List of Plant Varieties (Bundessortenliste) by 31 Dec 2004. This made planting and growing "Linda" illegal. The logic behind this is clear: farmers had to obey and grow other varieties that still generate license fees.

But the company underestimated Linda's popularity, especially in the north of Germany. Consumers started massive protests, rebellious farmers continued to plant and grow "Linda", the Federal Plant Varieties Office extended the termination period of Linda's listing until 2007, and one active farmer is trying to re-register the variety on the National List.

More general resistance is building up among farmers, too, against the re-seeding fees for instance. About 16,000 farmers are refusing to pass information on to Saatgut-Treuhand. It is not their intention to deprive breeders of their well-earned money. The Nachbau syndicate, which was founded by farmers organised in the "Consortium for Farm Agriculture" (Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft, AbL), has developed an alternative concept for a "seeds fund". Farmers, organisations, breeders and the state would pay into this fund, which in turn would pay plant breeders for their efforts. Members' participation would help to preserve the diversity of crop species and prevent yield increase from becoming the only goal of breeding activities.

What are Saatgut-Treuhand doing?

Saatgut-Treuhand are writing letters to farmers in which they ask for detailed information on what is grown where. More than 2,500 farmers who would not disclose this information have already been taken to court, through all levels.

But farmers are resisting - with success: the European Court of Justice decided in spring 2003 that there is no general obligation for farmers to give information to Saatgut-Treuhand. In autumn 2004, the court ruled that seed processing companies are under no general obligation of disclosure either. The court ruling also said that breeders needed to have evidence that a farmer possessed seeds they had listed (and might therefore engage in re-seeding) to be able to demand disclosure. The purchase of a license-protected seed variety could be regarded as evidence, according to the court.

But Saatgut-Treuhand are still demanding disclosure (although they now accept informal notices) and hiring lawyers to pester farmers with threatening letters. In addition, they are sending undercover test buyers to farms, who buy potatoes, request a receipt and slip in the question whether these potatoes can also be used for planting. Anybody who doesn't clearly deny this in the presence of witnesses is taken to court by Saatgut-Treuhand.

Why do we think this is worth a Big Brother Award?

Two reasons: First - it remains a mystery how Saatgut-Treuhand obtained the farmers' addresses. They claim to have searched phone book CDs for job specifications or the word "farm". But farmers who have no such details in their phone book entries have also received letters from Saatgut-Treuhand. In the yearbook "critical farming report" (Kritischer Agrarbericht) the suspicion was raised that the German Farmers Association (Deutscher Bauernverband) had provided Saatgut-Treuhand with its register of members. It is known that Raiffeisen cooperatives like the South German BayWa have not only handed over addresses but even full purchase details of their customers to Saatgut-Treuhand.

The second reason: a new central database with details on who planted what and how much on which land etc. is being created here. Saatgut-Treuhand are not doing this as a neutral clearing house, they are acting on behalf of the seeds industry - it is no coincidence that they are located in the same building as the Federal Association of German Plant Breeders (Bundesverband deutscher Pflanzenzüchter, BDP) and the European Seed Association (ESA) in Bonn.

This information on land use thus finds its way to the big seed companies, who have great commercial interest in a "transparent farmer". Whoever knows farmers' cropping plans can use this information to control what is planted - and eaten - with targeted price raises here and discounts there. The re-seeding fee is an important mosaic piece in this hunt for information. Knowledge is power.

The seeds industry is concentrating, with chemistry corporations buying into it - the global players Novartis, Bayer and Monsanto want to sell seeds, pesticides and fertilizers in "combo packs". It is their stated goal to control the complete "food chain", from seeds via harvest and processing to standardised foods straight to the consumers' plate.

Germany was chosen for its obedient mentality to test the enforceability of re-seeding fees in Europe - other countries are watching developments closely. In developing countries, 90% of the fields are planted with self-grown seeds. An enormous market will emerge there if the industry succeeds in convincing all these farmers over time to buy new seeds every year.

But who owns nature? Plant varieties are cultural assets. They have been bred by farmers over millennia, using continuous selection and adaptation to regional conditions. Now crop varieties are placed under "breeders' rights" protection or even patented after minimal changes, leading to cultivation monopolies.

This development is part of an ongoing trend of privatisation of many things that used to be in the public domain. Privatisation and commercialisation of goods that used to be free, like knowledge or plant varieties, are always followed by control instances and surveillance measures being set up to enforce royalties. The hunger for data and commerce is constantly growing.

But even Saatgut-Treuhand may become obsolete in a few years - as a technical solution for its tasks is in sight. The so-called "terminator gene" makes plants infertile, forcing farmers to buy new seeds year after year. The terminator gene is the seed industry's copy protection. But neither farmers nor consumers will be stupid enough to accept such of potatoes - no matter how big they are going to be.

Dear Saatgut-Treuhand, congratulations for the BigBrotherAward!


Updates to this awardee

Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to translate our updates into English.

Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

1 UPOV (Union internationale pour la protection des obtentions végétales) is the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

More info on re-seeding fees:

More info on "Linda":

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

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