UPOV 91 deal dilutes farmers’ rights

Behind the noise of the Rob Ford controversy in Toronto and the Senate scandal in Ottawa, the Canadian government is angling to legislate the removal of a farmers’ right that should be non-negotiable.

The federal government is moving quickly to implement the UPOV 91 plant breeders’ rights convention with first reading in Parliament of the Agricultural Growth Act, an agricultural omnibus bill.

The proponents for this move say that doing this will keep private plant breeding money in Canada and stop us from somehow immediately turning into Luddites.

However, supporters of UPOV 91 never acknowledge what will be taken away from farmers. In exchange for this increased level of patenting of seed stocks, farmers will lose the right to save, store, sell and reuse farm-saved seed.

Think about this for a second. In contrast to the practice of thousands of years of open source plant breeding, which incidentally has given us our present bountiful harvests, farmers will not be allowed to save the seed they have grown to plant again the following spring if plant breeders’ rights are attached to it.

We currently have a similar system in place for almost all canola grown in Canada because as a genetically modified crop, seed companies have been able to patent canola’s gene sequences and force farmers to pay royalties every year. The annual cost of buying new seed is always a sore point with canola growers.

Staying out of UPOV 91 will not diminish Canada’s importance as a wheat-growing region. Research will always be done here because of our strength in growing wheat.

More importantly, we do not need to be hostage to private plant breeders. Our public plant breeding system has been doing a good job for a century.

In fact, the canola boom started when an Agriculture Canada scientist working in the public plant breeding system changed the oil profile of what had been rapeseed, making it usable as a cooking oil.

This work was then turned over to private sector seed companies, which commercialized — and claimed plant breeders’ rights on — varieties expressing the trait.

UPOV supporters point to the canola model when arguing in favour of giving the entire plant breeding sector over to private interests.

However, are the so-called “amazing gains” made by privately bred canola better than the gains in wheat yields and the quality achieved by the Canadian tradition of public plant breeding?

R.J. Graf is one of many researchers who points out that gains in canola yields over the last 35 years have increased marginally — just one-tenth of a bushel per acre — compared with increases in wheat yields.

What is more interesting is that the cost of improving canola yields has been more than three times that of the public plant breeding system’s efforts to improve wheat….

There can be no denying the benefits that farmers and consumers have received from the work done at Agriculture Canada’s research centres, which was ongoing until prime minister Stephen Harper’s government set about cutting the budgets of public interest breeding programs to the bone.

Even 100 years of successful public interest plant breeding is nothing compared to the historical importance of farm saved seed.

Since the origin of agriculture, farmers have been selecting, saving and replanting seed from one year to the next and sharing improved varieties with their neighbours.

Ottawa is about to sign an agreement and bring in a law that would eliminate that right for many Canadian farmers.

It is interesting that those who normally scream the loudest about the need to protect property rights are now championing UPOV 91, which will protect only the intellectual property of multinational seed corporations at the expense of the intellectual commons that has been developed, collected and controlled by farmers over millennia.

Harper and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz must be stopped from favouring the rights of plant breeders at the expense of the rights of farmers and consumers to use grain varieties developed impartially in the public interest.

Matt Gehl is a National Farmers Union board member who farms near Regina.

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