Are farmer seed rights still safe?

A controversial bill aimed at modernizing Canada’s plant breeders’ rights legislation won’t affect a farmer’s rights to save and replant the seed that he harvests.

That message, delivered repeatedly by the supporters of the Agricultural Growth Act, was repeated last week by federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz.

Under Bill C-18, “the farmer’s right to save seed for future planting is protected and includes storage and/or cleaning of the seed,” Ritz told members of the House of Commons agriculture committee Oct. 9.

“A farmer does not need to seek permission from the rights holder to store farm-saved seed for replanting in future years. Let me repeat that. A farmer does not need to seek permission.”

The Agricultural Growth Act is an omnibus bill that deals with many farm sector issues. Key provisions would update Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and bring it into line with an international seed convention known as UPOV 91.

However, farm organizations that oppose the bill say UPOV 91 and the Agricultural Growth Act are an attempt by seed development companies to tighten their grip on Canada’s seed supply and limit farmers’ ability to store, condition and replant farm-saved seed.

UPOV 91 is a framework designed to improve intellectual property protections for organizations that develop and market new seed varieties.

In a nutshell, the UPOV 91 framework gives seed developers more control over the seed products they produce and provides them with more opportunities to collect income from new varieties they bring to market.

Canada is among a handful of developed nations that has yet to ratify UPOV 91 and update its plant breeders’ rights laws to conform with the UPOV 91 framework.

Supporters of Bill C-18 say it will encourage private sector companies to invest more money in plant breeding at a time when the federal government is reducing its role.

The agriculture committee began hearing witnesses’ views on the proposed legislation last week.

Protection of the farmers’ privilege was a recurring theme.

Despite reassurances from Ritz and other Bill C-18 supporters, National Farmers’ Union president Terry Boehm said the Agricultural Growth Act and UPOV 91 are examples of the continuous erosion of farmers’ rights and privileges.

Boehm urged Canadian lawmakers to resist the urge to become “quislings” to multinational seed companies and powerful life science companies at farmers’ expense.

“This is not in the public interest,” Boehm told the committee.

“It is in the interest of a limited number of seed companies that are continuously consolidating. Seed is one of the inputs that farmers can actually reproduce themselves,” he said.

“Farmers are not opposed to paying for new varieties from time to time, but they are opposed to the restrictions imposed by C-18 and … UPOV 91.”

Much of the scrutiny directed at Bill C-18 has been focused on the producer’s ability to use farm-saved seed, but other provisions in the proposed legislation that would clear the way for new revenue collection mechanisms could have far-reaching implications at the farm level.

For example, provisions in the bill would allow seed developers to collect seed royalties at any point in the production process.

This means seed developers could charge royalties on seed that is harvested, as opposed to charging up-front fees for pedigreed seed bought for planting.

End collection systems, known as end point royalties (EPRs), would be specified in contracts between the farmer and the seed company that holds plant breeders’ rights on that variety.

EPRs are already being used in some countries and are collected on a per- tonne basis, similar to how producer checkoffs are handled in Canada.

Although Bill C-18 would not necessarily result in the implementation of an end-point royalty system, opponents say the bill could allow for its future introduction.

Under that scenario, producers would still have the right to save and replant farm-saved seed from a PBR protected variety, but grain that is harvested and sold at the elevator could generate end-point royalties, payable to the seed company.

Government officials have acknowledged that such a system could be introduced under Bill C-18, as long as the proper regulations are in place.

Ritz hinted to NDP MP and agriculture committee member Alex Atamanenko that future regulations to seed royalties will be determined through consultations with the industry.

“So would this bill also empower the government to remove, restrict or limit the farmer’s seed saving privilege by passing regulations … something that can happen quickly and without public debate?” Atamanenko said.

“Well you know, any government of the day can move forward with regulations,” Ritz replied.

“I’m not sure why anybody would want to commit suicide like that as a government. We have tremendous consultations with all of our farm groups all across Canada as to what’s in their best interest moving forward.”

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