Farmers wonder if saving seed OK

Two events that happened in May have some Alberta farmers worried about their ability to save and replant seed.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Percy Schmeiser trial and a report released by the Seed Sector Advisory Committee have prompted the Alberta Canola Producers Commission to take action.

Ward Toma, general manager of the commission, said a resolution passed at the group’s annual general meeting calls on Ottawa to enshrine a farmer’s right to save seed in the Plant Breeders Rights Act.

The resolution was prompted by the Schmeiser trial, in which the highest court in the land sided with Monsanto in a case that pitted the biotech company against a Bruno, Sask., farmer who was found guilty of violating Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready canola.

The commission agreed with Sch-meiser that the ruling makes it clear a company’s patent takes precedence over a farmer’s right to save and reuse his seed.

Their concerns were exacerbated when a seed industry review recommended an investigation into collecting royalties on farm-saved seed to help fund costly breeding work.

“They might not take away the right for farmers to keep their own seed, but they might tax it so that they take the competitive advantage away,” said Toma.

Bill Leask, executive director of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, one of four groups that initiated the seed sector review, said the committee is only exploring the idea of such a system.

They will take a look at several European countries where breeders’ associations and other agencies collect royalties from farmers.

In the United Kingdom the money is collected at seed cleaning plants, where farmers pay about half the fees charged to certified seed growers.

Leask said the royalties lead to tangible benefits for farmers. In Germany they have spawned a dozen private plant breeding companies responsible for creating cereal varieties that have doubled yields over the past 40-50 years.

The Alberta Canola Producers Commission isn’t the only farm group leery of the idea. The National Farmers Union said most of the money that would be collected will go to the corporations that develop seeds, not to the farmers who propagate them.

Toma said the seed industry views farm-saved seed as competition and is attempting to negate any financial motivation growers have to hold a portion of their crops for next year.

He can’t understand why growers should have to pay royalties on farm-saved seed.

“They already paid that when they bought the initial seed. So why would they have to pay it more than once?”

Leask said it’s like purchasing software. Developers don’t want customers making copies of their programs without paying an additional fee.

“The royalty rate is set with the assumption that this (crop) would be used on an annual basis.”

But he said it’s a misconception that the seed industry is pushing to get rid of farmers’ rights.

In fact, one of the recommendations of the seed sector review is that the federal government proceed with proposed amendments to the Plant Breeders Rights Act, one of which establishes the right for farmers to save seed for their own use.

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