NFU warns Ottawa of policy consequences

New president speaks out | Farm group says the same thing that happened with grain handling will happen to the seed trade

Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz must think through his decisions beforehand or farmers will continue to deal with the consequences, says the new president of the National Farmers Union.


Jan Slomp said the NFU predicted chaos in grain movement when the government removed the stick that CWB had previously wielded over the railways.


“We warned the minister he needs to come with solutions if he takes the railway authority away from the board. This is clearly a calamity as a result. It was predictable,” said Slomp, who farms near Rimbey, Alta.


“If you have a narrow highway with lots of activity, you benefit from a director over that highway in charge of all traffic. Now you have multiple players with their own plans and ideas. Efficiencies are way harder to obtain.”


He said grain farmers are suffering from an inability to move grain now that the railways don’t make it a priority to haul from the Prairies to the ports.


“The railroads have no interest in increasing a lot more capacity,” he said.


Slomp said more problems will be created for farmers if Ritz ratifies the UPOV ’91 plant breeders’ rights protocol by Aug. 1 without more consultation and a plan to deal with the fallout.


Ritz recently signalled he intends to sign the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, which allows plant breeders a better return on their investment and encourages more plant development.


Slomp said the government isn’t likely to return single desk selling to the Canadian wheat market, but he wants it to look carefully at what will happen to farmers if Canada ratifies UPOV ’91.


“Let’s, for Pete’s sake, have a broad consultation on the implications and ask organizations like the NFU for input before you make the decision,” he said.


“We need to prevent this kind of ideological decision making without proper research and without proper consultation. If we don’t want to revisit the problems in the past, let’s prevent them in the future.”


The NFU is concerned that UPOV ’91 will force farmers to pay royalties when they sell their grain as well as royalties when they buy the seed.


However, farmers would be charged at one point or the other, not both. But there are concerns farmers will be forced to pay on several generations of saved seed.


NFU past-president Terry Boehm said UPOV ’91 would affect farmers’ ability to save, exchange and sell seed. 


“UPOV ’91 gives plant breeders the right to collect royalties anywhere in the grain system. Seed companies will have the tools to extract more money out of farmers.”


Ritz said ratifying UPOV ’91 will encourage more plant breeding that benefits farmers, but Boehm said farmers would be forced to buy new, more expensive varieties as public varieties disappear.


“We don’t believe in putting power in the hands of multinationals,” Boehm said.


Slomp said he wants Ritz to have more discussion about the issue before signing the seed treaty. 


“We have to be way more careful and listen to the people who have knowledge of what UPOV ’91 really means before we make decisions,” he said.


“We will be active on this file and demand a better process.”


Slomp said commercial farmers aren’t the only ones concerned about UPOV ’91. A growing number of NFU members are smaller farmers in-volved in community shared agriculture projects, who worry that a new seed treaty would limit their access to new vegetable seed varieties.


Slomp, who was elected at the organization’s convention in Ottawa Nov. 27-30, said the NFU’s mandate hasn’t changed, but it has evolved to represent its members, including a growing number of small-scale farmers and younger farmers.


“It is actually very exciting coming back from the convention. Our membership is picking up and enthusiasm is growing,” he said.


“We still have 4,000-acre crop producers on the Prairies,” he said.


“We always have quite a voice for them, but we really have to balance all forms of food production across the country.”


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