“Are you sure this is legal?”

Thibaut and I were making paper envelopes, labeling them, filling them with seeds, taping them shut, and stuffing them into our pockets.

“I don’t know,” he said. He held up a jar marked Fèves d’Aguadulce. “Did you get any of these?”

Behind us, a drum band danced past tables spread with figs and grape bunches. We could smell the wood-fired oven to our right, where a man in a beret was baking bread. It was Heritage Day. We’d come to the tiny town of Lodève for a festival.

This was one stop along my route through southern France. I was researching agricultural traditions and policy; Thibaut Schelstraete, an agronomist, 26 years old, was my guide. Over the course of a few weeks, I would visit seven farms within a 150-mile radius of Montpellier: a melon farm in St-Nicolas-de-la-Grave; a honey farm in Malemort-du-Comtat; a sunflower farm in Venasque; a vegetable farm in Vézénobres; a cereal farm and bakery in Montignargues; a wine, wheat, fruit, and nut farm in Laure-Minervois; and a horse-powered grain farm in Bezouce.

The festival in Lodève was a last-minute addition to the itinerary. A criminal seed-collecting spree wasn’t part of the original plan either.

Taped to the plastic table in front of Thibaut and me was a sheet of graph paper, where someone had written in blue ballpoint:

EXCHANGE OF
SEEDS, SEEDLINGS,
CUTTINGS, AND IDEAS

Around the sign were scores of recycled containers — jam pots, a coffee can, a deer pâté jar — all full of seeds. A woman with red hair stood behind the table.

“These are the ones I brought,” she said, passing her hand over a few jars. “Here, help yourselves.”

Thibaut was so excited about the arugula seeds that he spilled a spray of them on the table. He was already imagining next year’s garden at his home near Avignon. I imagined my garden in upstate New York.

The seeds I pocketed would become contraband the minute I got them to JFK — that much I already knew. What I didn’t know was whether the “exchange” was legal in the first place. Regardless of where the seeds ended up, this was all unregistered plant reproductive material, or, as the European Commission abbreviates it, “PRM.”

Were we breaking the law? And could somebody please tell me — why would the exchange of vegetable seeds be forbidden?

***

Agriculture has been around for 10,000 years. It’s the base of human society. And the base of agriculture is seeds.

The first ancients ever to “farm” were only “farmers” (as opposed to hunter-gatherers) because they saved and planted seeds. We’ve been doing it every year since. From this simple practice springs all agricultural and culinary diversity.

Seed saving is where selection happens. It’s the moment when a farmer culls the gene pool: the best of this year’s crop becomes the starting point of next year’s. Thousands of years of seed saving have generated millions — maybe billions — of agricultural species.

Between 1900 and 2001 — a mere hundred years — 75 percent of cultivated varieties disappeared.

You may have heard the story already: industrialization, consolidation, standardization, hybridization, patents, and property rights. There are fewer and fewer farmers. Fewer of them save seeds because they can buy them. And what they’re buying are the same certified, homogenous varieties as everybody else. Fewer than 10 firms control more than 70 percent of the seed market.

Last month, a report released by the Gaia Foundation, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, and the African Biodiversity Network warned that farming will not adapt to climate change without seed diversity. If we don’t pay attention to seeds, in other words, we won’t have any food. The first word of the report is “Urgent.”

***

Some of the farmhouses in France are older than the United States of America. When it comes to agriculture, French heritage is of a different order — rich and ancient. Consider the wines that can only come from certain grapes grown in certain soils; the bread from wheat selected only for its flavor; the cheeses from certain animals grazing certain pastures; curd cured in certain caves. This is thousands of years of work — of evolution. French farmers don’t take it lightly.

“There’s a reason why the rooster is a symbol of France,” Thibaut told me. The rooster is brave and proud. His daily work is the wake-up call.

Many of France’s small-scale farmers are activists — much more so than American farmers. They join groups and networks; they attend meetings and festivals; they pay attention to agricultural policies; they stage protests. In 1974, farmers from Larzac set their sheep to graze under the Eiffel Tower to protest the expansion of a military base. In 2012, dairy farmers sprayed thousands of liters of milk at the EU Parliament in Brussels to protest low milk prices.

This summer, poultry farmers smashed 100,000 eggs a day to protest low egg prices. It seems more than a coincidence that the French word campagne means both “countryside” and “campaign.”

French activist farmers call themselves paysans. The most literal translation of paysans is “countrymen” — though we so rarely use the word, and it belongs so inevitably to Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, that it doesn’t seem quite right. Some people translate paysan as “peasant,” but it’s hard to shuck the pejorative connotation, which paysan doesn’t carry.

Paysans are farmers: they draw their livelihood from the land. They also feel a strong sense of duty to their country (pays) and heritage.

Over thousands of years, French farmers have accumulated a staggering number of “heritage” crop varieties (they call them paysan varieties), many of which are adapted to hyper-local conditions. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is cause for optimism. Facing climate change, the diverse gene pool will be adaptable.

The problem with paysan varieties is that they’re hard to regulate. Nobody owns them — they’re a common inheritance. They can’t all be named and catalogued because their lineages can’t be precisely traced. And there’s so much variation among the seeds of a single crop that they’re never pure enough to market. So paysan seeds remain largely out of reach of corporations and the government — much to the irritation of the multi-billion-dollar seed industry, in which Monsanto is company number one, and the French company, Limagrain, is number four.

But industry must control its commodity.

Recent and upcoming legislation is now threatening paysan seeds. And French farmers are sounding the wake-up call.

hannahsassoon-seedsaving-2

At the Lodève festival, the drum band had quieted down. Thibaut and I had left the seed exchange table and followed a dirt path to a small wooden shed, where twenty-odd people were gathered.

“If the legislation tightens,” an old man in a knitted sweater was saying, “we’ll disobey.”

This was Michel Metz, an administrator of the Réseau Semences Paysannes. The RSP, the host of the festival, is a network of farmers, gardeners, syndicates, NGOs, and regional groups. They help each other cultivate and exchange paysan seeds, and, on a national scale, they lobby for farmers’ rights.

French seed legislation is complicated: several documents from several decades, fattened with amendments and appendices. Many farmers don’t know what their rights are.

They do know that the laws are under revision. To streamline, France is preparing to adopt new EU-wide seed legislation that should be ready by 2019. Paysans, of course, fear they’ll lose their most basic right: the right to freely save and exchange seeds as they’ve been doing for thousands of years.

“Exchange is important,” Michel said. “That’s how it’s always worked. The other thing that’s very important is to be able to sell seeds that aren’t registered in the Catalog.”

France’s Official Catalog of Species and Cultivated Plant Varieties is nothing new. It first appeared in 1932, well before the postwar rise of chemical agriculture. The government needed to ensure that a single variety wasn’t sold under multiple names, and that multiple varieties weren’t sold under the same name. The Catalog, really, was created to protect consumers.

Nowadays, in order for a variety to be registered, it must meet three strict criteria. It must be distinct (D) — that is, different from everything else in the Catalog. It must be uniform (U) — all of its seeds the same. And it must be stable (S), meaning that the plants stay the same from generation to generation. Seeds that don’t meet DUS criteria can’t be registered. Seeds that aren’t registered can’t be sold.

The logic is clear-cut and sound, except that most paysan crops — especially grains — don’t meet this political, rather than botanical, definition of “variety.” Because they’re excluded from the seed market, it becomes difficult — even illegal — to obtain them. Diversity dwindles.

A few exemptions protect paysan seed varieties. You’re allowed to exchange non-registered seeds locally and in small quantities, so long as they’re not intended for commercial production. Two annexes to the Catalog also list permissible heritage varieties.

Paysans have had to fight for these small allowances. Their seeds and seed trading are still marginalized.
“Of course what’s really important is that you, citizens and gardeners, participate in [cultivating] biodiversity,” Michel said. “Gardeners, don’t worry” — for now, at least, there isn’t much that’s illegal.

Behind us, I spotted a table wrapped in yellow paper. About 20 heritage varieties of figs had been arranged on it — a pair of fruits and a leaf for each. Their names were written on the table in large Sharpie cursive: Marie Madeleine, Grise de St. Jean, La Blanquette.

“Hey, Thibaut, look at this,” I said. One of them was labeled Couilles de Papa — Dad’s balls.

“Well,” he said, “you certainly wouldn’t find that in the Catalog.”

***

The Catalog names all the seeds on the market. But it doesn’t say who owns them.

Plant patents, the linchpin of the U.S. seed industry, are forbidden in Europe. Instead, France grants plant breeders’ rights.

If a breeder develops or discovers a plant variety that meets DUS criteria, he can register it in the Catalog and buy the exclusive rights to sell the seeds. It costs €10,000 to €15,000. If anybody else wants to sell those seeds, they’re required to pay him a royalty. They also have to pay him every time they replant the variety, even if they’re using their own saved seed.

Breeders’ rights law is lenient compared to U.S. patents, but the conditions may tighten in the next few years.

Farmers worry that if patents make it through the door, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be close behind, knocking. GMOs are perceived as the greatest threat to paysan heritage.

“Paysan seeds can’t coexist with GMOs,” the moderator of the discussion in the shed in Lodève said. “GMOs, once they’re cultivated, will pollinate paysan varieties [and] contaminate them.”

So far, GMOs aren’t on the French seed market. But during free trade talks this summer, lobbyists began increasing pressure on France to adopt them. France refused, but paysans know the debate has only just begun.

***

Two weeks after the festival, we drove to a small farm near Nîmes in search of heritage wheat seeds for Thibaut to plant.

The door of the house was open when we arrived — rather, there was no door in the doorway at all, only a white curtain drawn to one side. We stood in the driveway. It didn’t look like anyone was home.

We’d parked next to a shed that was twice the size of the house, so I went to look inside. It was full of old farm equipment: grain mills, winnowing machines, half pipes, sieves, buckets, barrels, combine harvesters. A stack of square hay bales. I recognized the disarray: this was a place full of life and trial and error — full of the methodologies of an old farmer.

François, the old farmer we were looking for, emerged from behind the house. His pants were caked with flour. He smoothed his white mustache as he approached.

“I was just feeding the mares!” he said.

We followed him under a fig tree to a little wooden building, the atelier.

“Wow, it smells good in here,” said Thibaut when we stepped inside — pine walls, milled flour, basil.
On one side of the atelier, François’s wife makes pasta: elbows, bowties, corkscrews, spaghetti nests dyed with beets. On the other is François’s conservatory.

There was barely enough room for the three of us to stand between his four-chute grain mill and his floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked two feet deep with seeds. Hard wheat, soft wheat, red, white, bearded, beardless. Blue-gray rye.

Green lentils. Chickpeas. Canola.

François leaned over a crate of basil. “It repels the weevils,” he explained. He clipped a sprig and tucked it into a tiny plastic bag along with two handfuls of seed and a scrap of paper marked “Touzelle rouge sans barbe” (beardless red wheat). He zipped the bag and handed it to me, then began preparing another, and another, and another.

All this, he said, was illegal. His round cheeks wilted. An official from the National Inter-professional Seed and

Seedling Association had told him he didn’t have the right to sell, exchange, or give these seeds to anybody.

“But — ,” said Thibaut. This sort of exchange was supposed to be exempt: a small quantity, not intended for commercial use.

“Well, that’s what they told me.”

What they told him isn’t what the law says. It’s no wonder that François and so many other farmers are confused about their rights.

Nonetheless, here we were. Here was an old farmer handing seeds to a young one, explaining which wheat would make the highest-rising bread loaf and how best to grind the grain.

“We need as many people as possible,” François said, “to help maintain the heritage our elders have given us.”

Next week, Thibaut will plant the seeds.

All quotations are translated from the French. Hannah Sassoon got her seeds through customs, and she plans to plant them this spring.