PBR rules undergo federal review

Ottawa is contemplating legislation that would allow seed companies to collect royalties on harvested grain.

Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz told members of the Canadian Seed Trade Association Nov. 13 that Ottawa is considering changes to current plant breeders’ rights legislation that would clear the way for the adoption of regulatory standards known as UPOV 91.

Under UPOV 91 standards, farmers would retain the right to plant farm-saved seed.

However, seed companies that develop seed varieties would be permitted, under some circumstances, to collect royalties at any stage of production, including on harvested grain produced from farm-saved seed.

Ritz suggested in Winnipeg last week that legislation supporting UPOV 91 could be in place as early as August.

In a subsequent interview with The Western Producer, he said no definitive timelines have been set for adoption.

“Legislation is being contemplated but at the end of the day, discussions are paramount,” Ritz said.

“If we’re going to make these changes, I’d like to see them in place for the next crop year, but we have not predisposed discussions … that at the end of the day will be at industry’s direction.… We want to make sure that industry is going to get the results that they’re looking for and we want to make sure that we discuss all of the issues leading up to any legislation that may be tabled later.”

The Canadian seed industry has been promoting the adoption of UPOV 91 standards for some time.

CSTA leaders say Canada must update its intellectual property regime and provide seed companies with more opportunities to collect revenues from innovative seed products.

Proponents say UPOV 91 would encourage investment by seed companies, support the development of new varieties and give Canadian farmers access to better seeds with higher yield potential and improved agronomic performance.

UPOV 91 standards would extend control over PBR protected seed varieties to 20 years from 18 years.

They would also expand breeders’ rights to include control over a wider range of activities.

For instance, seed companies would have exclusive control over cleaning, conditioning and storing of PBR protected seed.

Current regulations allow seed companies to exercise control only over the production, reproduction and sale of PBR protected varieties.

However, perhaps the most controversial element of UPOV 91 is a provision that allows seed companies to collect royalties on harvested grain.

Under UPOV 91 standards, companies that are denied an opportunity to collect royalties on PBR protected seed would be permitted to collect royalties on harvested grain.

They would not be allowed to collect royalties on both seed and harvested grain, a concept known as double dipping.

The National Farmers Union was one of the first organizations to issue a response to Ritz’s comments on UPOV 91.

In a Nov. 15 news release, NFU president Terry Boehm said adopting UPOV 91 standards will severely restrict farmers’ ability to save and reuse seed.

“Farmers should be very aware that this regime will allow breeders to collect royalties on the entire crop, not just on the seed as allowed under our current plant breeders rights’ legislation,” said Boehm.

“Yet again, Gerry Ritz is proving himself to be the Canadian agriculture minister most hostile to farmers ever by giving a choice plum to the biggest corporations in the world: the right to exploit farmers through UPOV 91.”

Canada is one of a handful of modern industrialized countries that has not adopted UPOV 91 regulations, along with New Zealand and South Africa.

Canada signalled in 1992 that it intended to ratify UPOV 91 regulations and bring Canadian PBR legislation in line with the new standards.

So far, it has not happened.

End point royalties, which are charged on harvested grain, are already an established method of collecting PBR revenues in many countries, including Australia.

Royalties there vary from crop to crop and variety to variety but in most cases, they range from a low of $1 or $2 a tonne to a high of $4 per tonne.

On Nov. 18, the Western Barley Growers Association (WBGA) issued a news release applauding Ottawa’s support for updated PBR laws and the creation of a more attractive investment climate for plant breeders.  

“We have been told by private plant breeders that they are not interested in risking the millions of dollars it costs to bring a variety to market in Canada without a more modern legal framework in plant breeders’ rights,” said WBGA president Doug Robertson.   

Added WBGA vice-president Martin Hall: “The changes … will allow the adoption of UPOV 91 and bring Canada in step with the rest of the world.… We applaud the federal government for their vision and drive to create a modern grain industry in Canada.”

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