Updated plant breeders’ rights act wins praise

Proposed amendments to federal plant breeders’ rights legislation will benefit farmers, plant breeders and seed companies, says a respected cereal breeder from the University of Saskatchewan.

Bryan Harvey, who developed or co-developed more than 50 varieties of barley, said legislation aimed at modernizing the PBR Act is long overdue and should not be feared by producers.

He said an updated PBR Act will provide greater protections for intellectual property, generate more revenue for plant breeders and encourage investment by private and public breeding organizations.

For farmers, that will mean more new crop varieties and improved productivity.

“Collecting royalties on our varieties is a very important source of revenue,” Harvey told an event that AgWest Bio hosted in Saskatoon April 17.

“The key thing of course is that we keep funding flowing to … (plant breeding) programs.”

Debate surrounding Canada’s PBR Act has increased over the past few months following the introduction of Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act.

Bill C-18 was introduced in Parliament last December and is currently in second reading.

Passage of the bill is expected by August.

Among other things, Bill C-18 proposes amendments to Canada’s existing PBR Act to bring plant breeders rights in line with the 1991 convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties, also known as UPOV 91.

Plant breeders and life science companies generally support the notion of updating Canada’s PBR provisions to conform with UPOV 91.

However, many growers and some farm groups see the changes as a loss of farmer control over Canada’s seed supply.

The National Farmers Union, for example, has strongly condemned Bill C-18, saying it will restrict farmers’ ability to save and replant seed and will result in higher seed prices.

“UPOV 91 isn’t about innovation,” the NFU said when Bill C-18 was introduced. 

“It’s about restricting what farmers can do with seed and giving seed companies powerful new tools to extract money from farmers.”

Anthony Parker, commissioner of plant breeders’ rights with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said many misconceptions surround UPOV 91.

One of the most common is that a UPOV 91 compliant PBR Act will eliminate a farmer’s right to save and reuse seed for the purpose of growing a crop in subsequent years.

Parker said UPOV 91 will not affect the right to save and reuse seed as long as the seed is not being sold as brown bagged seed to other producers.

This practice is already illegal in Canada and would remain illegal under UPOV 91.

Another common misconception is that updating Canada’s PBR legislation will automatically result in the introduction of an end point royalty system, in which farmers would be required to pay a royalty on every tonne of grain produced from a PBR protected variety.

Parker said a PBR Act that complies with UPOV 91 would not necessarily result in the implementation of end point royalties (EPR), but it could facilitate such a system in the future.

“We have some tools there that may facilitate (EPRs) in the future but … it’s going to require a very comprehensive dialogue between farmer organizations and breeders to discuss how we want to increase the levels of investment and innovation in plant breeding,” Parker said.

Some observers say Bill C-18 is best described as enabling legislation that, if passed, would allow Ottawa to make future regulatory changes that could affect the way plant breeders collect royalties on their new seed products.

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