After months of unexpected de-lays and a lengthy pause for Parliament’s summer recess, the Conservatives’ latest agriculture bill has finally begun its study at committee.
Farm groups have anticipated the Agricultural Growth Act since federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz first tabled it in the House of Commons last December. The bill amends nine pieces of agricultural legislation and would see Canada adopt UPOV 91.
Most of the country’s agriculture groups support the bill, at least in principle. The notable exceptions are the National Farmers’ Union and the Canada Organic Trade Association, which argue UPOV 91 is bad news for Canadian farmers.
Much of the bill’s controversy re-volves around the necessary changes to Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, which were required to ratify UPOV 91. The NFU argues the shift away from the current agreement, UPOV 78, will impede a farmer’s ability to save seed.
Ritz has repeatedly brushed aside those suggestions, insisting they are “simply not true.” He told the House of Commons’ agriculture committee Oct. 7 that farmers can do anything they want with the seed as long as they have a contract.
“You can move it around 16 times, you can clean it, you can bag it, you can dump the bags out, you can do whatever you want,” he said.
“It’s yours until you sell it.”
Still, while Ritz may be reluctant to admit it, the NFU’s messaging about the right to save has clearly infiltrated Canada’s farming community. So much so that he’s been forced to request an amendment to the legislation that will clarify the bill’s language. He told the committee that the amendment will put more “farmer friendly” language into the bill so that growers know their right to save seed is protected.
“In most cases, lawyers aren’t farmers and they don’t get the agricultural jargon,” Ritz said, prompting chuckles from committee members and stakeholders gathered in the room.
Pierre Lemieux, Ritz’s parliamentary secretary, would introduce that amendment at committee, he added.
The UPOV 91 changes are not retroactive, Ritz stressed. The adjustments would apply only to new varieties. Heritage and other older seed varieties are exempt.
As for accusations that the legislation would introduce endpoint royalties and force farmers to pay twice, Ritz said that, too, was nothing more than a misconception.
“You either pay the IP up front, as farmers are used to doing now with new varieties of canola, soy, corn, whatever it is,” he said, or wait until farmers want to sell their product and pay the IP at the end.
However, it’s worth noting that the legislation does allow for the creation of a regulatory framework that would allow for the introduction of end point royalties down the road.
Farm groups told the committee that the government will need to consult with stakeholders if it decides end point royalties are necessary.
However, concerns around plant breeders’ rights weren’t the only points raised by stakeholders.
Many farm groups publicly mused last week whether the proposed changes to the Advanced Payment Program were sufficient, particularly given the lessons learned during last winter’s transportation crisis.
The Canadian Canola Growers Association, an APP administrator in Western Canada, suggested the maximum loan amount be increased to $800,000 from $400,000, of which the first $100,000 is interest free.
Only 10 percent of growers are near or at the current limit, but Rick White, the association’s chief executive officer, pointed out the program’s ceiling hasn’t been raised since 2006.
At the same time, White said, farms continue to get bigger and input costs continue to rise. Raising the cap would keep the program relevant.
He told the committee that some farmers aren’t even bothering with the programs because their operating costs are much higher than the minimum amount.
However, Ritz appeared reluctant to increase the loan amount to $800,000, saying the program already “captures the vast majority of farms.”
“We’re not wanting to over-stimulate size and scope, and since 94 percent to 95 percent of farmers take advantage of the program now in the scope that it’s in, there hasn’t been an appetite to move it further,” he said.
“So, we’re hoping that the administrative changes and so on that were in here will actually ease some of that.… Farms of that size and scope actually have other venues of lines of credit.”
The committee’s study resumes Oct. 21.