Push to private plant breeding shameful

Agriculture Canada is closing its Cereal Research Centre this month, marking the end of nearly a century of public plant breeding in Winnipeg.

It is another sorry landmark on the Stephen Harper government’s systematic path of destruction through Canada’s public agriculture institutions.

Publicly funded plant breeding at the CRC, along with other Agriculture Canada research stations and several Canadian universities, has produced most of Canada’s cereal crop varieties, which are the foundation for our multibillion-dollar grain industry.

Industry Canada says that approximately 50 percent of wheat and oat acreage in Canada is seeded to varieties developed at the CRC, which represent a farm gate value of close to $2.5 billion.

The federal government is not only closing the CRC but is winding down all public funding for spring wheat plant breeding to make way for private sector investment.

Agriculture Canada will allow scientists to continue work already in progress but will not support new breeding nor allow the current work to proceed to the final stage of producing varieties farmers can buy.

The CRC’s top-notch spring wheat team has been broken up, and only a handful of Agriculture Canada wheat breeders remain at the Brandon, Swift Current, Sask., and Lethbridge research stations.

Agriculture Canada director general Stephen Morgan Jones laid out the federal government’s vision at a Canadian Seed Trade Association meeting last year: the department would “vacate” variety finishing; germplasm developed by the department’s scientists would be sold to private companies; intellectual property rights rules would be re-drawn to benefit private breeders and variety registration rules would be revisited.

Yet public plant breeding gives a high return on investment.

Studies by University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Richard Gray show that every dollar invested in cereals breeding returns at least $20, and often more. When the federal government invests $30 million a year in wheat breeding, it creates at least $600 million in value, which is distributed among farmers in the form of better crops and provides income to pay wages, taxes, and check offs for additional research.

However, most of these high re-turns go to shareholders when private companies invest, with most of them being wealthy non-Canadians.

Gene patents, hybridization and contracts help the sellers of genetically modified canola, soy and corn hold onto most if not all of the returns by forcing farmers to buy expensive new seed each year.

Gray’s research shows high returns to investment in plant breeding, but it also documents that private seed companies reinvest only a small portion of returns into new research.

Research has also shown that private breeding is less economically efficient: $25 million in annual public investment in wheat produces can generate the same yield increases produced by $80 million in private money in canola breeding.

It’s uncertain whether the federal government has decided to bring in UPOV 91 through Bill C-18 in spite of or because of this disparity in how returns to plant breeding are distributed. However, no matter the reason, it will guarantee Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dow a massive new revenue stream. By defunding and vacating public spring wheat breeding, the federal government is handing these companies an incredibly lucrative new source of profits.

This new funding policy and the UPOV ’91 plant breeders regime that underpins it will not only lose Canadian grain farmers the future varieties that the CRC would have developed, but it will pay higher seed prices and increased royalties, whether on the purchase of new seed or as end point royalties on crops harvested from farm-saved seed.

If changes to variety registration rules proposed last May are adopted, companies will be able to deregister older varieties that no longer provide them with royalties. This will force farmers to choose among fewer and more expensive varieties.

When the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, the CRC’s predecessor, was established in 1925, prairie farmers were fighting for a fair share against the oligopolies of the banks, railways and grain companies, and we eventually built the Canadian Wheat Board to act in the farmers’ interest.

Today, in the shadow of the economic disaster that the Conservative government unleashed by tearing down the CWB, it is now adding insult to injury by creating a new seed oligopoly.

Glenn Tait is a National Farmers Union board member. He grows grain and raises cattle on his family farm near Meota, Sask.

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