Farmers need more control over public seed options

It’s been argued, rightfully, that Canada had best pay close attention to creating a research friendly environment lest private investment trickle away to overseas competitors.

Innovative solutions that strike the right balance between protecting seed breeders’ rights and maintaining a wide range of farmer options must be a priority. 

Both parties must be successful if either is to have any chance.

The federal government has made it an expressed priority to encourage private investment, while reducing public spending on seed research and development.

In its eagerness to cut its own costs, it must be careful not to ignore the negative consequences.

Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz has said he hopes to have new plant breeders’ rights protections, as outlined under UPOV 91, in place by next August.

They are regulations designed to provide assurances that breeding companies will be able to generate revenue from expensive and time consuming research and development efforts.

However, farmer-saved seed is the main sticking point. There are allowances for it in UPOV 91, but pitfalls remain. 

First among them is seed companies’ ability to collect end-user royalties on protected seed. If farmers have not paid the royalty when they bought the seed, seed companies could force them to pay it on harvested grain.

On the surface, this isn’t asking farmers to pay for more than what they already do. Farmers are familiar with signing contracts when buying protected seed.

However, the shifting of power toward seed companies comes at the same time that the federal government is pulling away from public research.

As more and more public varieties are deregistered over the years and with no new public varieties coming on stream, farmers will have fewer and fewer public, royalty free seed choices. 

The added costs of protected seed will become almost unavoidable for most conventional farmers.

They appear headed to that spot be-tween a rock and a hard place, where they have less control over the seed breeding and registration system while also having fewer options available in public seed.

UPOV, or the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, works under the mission statement “to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society.”

However, the UPOV 91 provisions de-signed to protect farmer-saved seed will offer nothing of significance if all the power ends up with the seed companies. 

As well, the proposals place more onus on seed cleaners to verify the authenticity of seed in custom cleaning work.

Yes, there are huge advantages for farmers when they have access to the latest agronomic and genetic advances that high quality seed can provide.

However, the current language that “may permit farmers, on their own farms, to use part of their harvest of a protected variety for the planting of a further crop” is subject to “reasonable limits and requires that the legitimate interests of the breeder are safeguarded” tilt the playing field too far. 

Farmers deserve more ownership and decision-making powers.

UPOV91 is a barn door flung wide open. Can the horse be far behind?

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.


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