Growth Act: growth for whom?

The Omnibus Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, went to Parliament for first reading Dec. 9.

Passing Bill C-18 would make Canada compliant with UPOV 91, a much more restrictive form of plant breeders’ rights than we currently have.

The second part of the act will prepare Canada’s regulatory regime for fast track approval of feed or food additives, drugs or other inventions that are already approved in jurisdictions with which we trade.

Bill C-18 also opens the door for farmers to tap into multi-year ad-vance payments secured by crops in storage or grown in the future.

After a ground swell of farmer-led opposition to adopting UPOV 91 in 2005, the Liberal government of the day let it quietly die as it became clear that farmers would be drastically restricted in their ability to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed. The Canadian public clearly demanded that genetic resources remain a public good.

Before reintroducing UPOV 91 through Bill C-18, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz has been actively spreading the myth and managing to convince many farm organizations and commodity groups that saving seed is enshrined in this bill.

It is obvious that UPOV 91 gives plant breeders significantly more rights and tools for royalty collection, while farmers’ seed-saving right is reduced merely to “privilege.”

A privilege was typically given to peasants by feudal lords and could be arbitrarily and unpredictably retracted.

A closer look at the text of Bill C-18 reveals that it indeed talks about a farmer’s ability to save seed.

However, the farmer needs the permission of the holder of the plant breeders’ rights when storing that saved seed, which may or may not be given.

Of course, the breeder also has the right to charge royalties.

Bill C-18 also empowers government to remove, restrict or limit the farmer’s seed-saving privilege by passing regulations, a process that can happen quickly and without public debate.

UPOV 91 has many provisions for royalty collection: after a crop has been harvested, when seed is cleaned in seed cleaning plants and when a crop is moved off the farm for sale at elevators and other points of transaction.

Canada should reject UPOV 91 and defeat Bill C-18. Instead, we should reinforce our public plant breeding programs.

With the continued allocation of farmer check-off money, there will be ample funding for essential variety development. There is absolutely no need to grant transnational plant breeders more tools to extract excessive funds from farmers.

Adopting UPOV 91 may result in some genetic improvements of crops but at significantly higher costs than a public breeding system, which benefits the whole Canadian economy.

UPOV 91 would result in significantly higher costs for farmers and growth in profits for seed and chemical companies headquartered outside of our country.

Jan Slomp is president of the National Farmers Union. He manages a 65-cow dairy farm near Rimbey, Alta.

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