Letters to the editor – January 17, 2019

Farmers need more choice on royalties

When Canada first established the Plant Breeders Rights Act (1990), farmers were reassured that we would always be allowed to save our seed free of charge.

Now, seed breeders state that the money being paid for new seed varieties is inadequate to cover the cost of varietal development and want to force farmers to pay a trailing royalty or an end-use royalty on seed saved for on-farm planting.

If this is the case, why not just increase the cost of that first seed purchase so that royalties are included up front? The farmer’s willingness to pay up front would be a more accurate reflection in the marketplace of the value proposition offered by new varieties, based on their trial performance in the various growing zones of the prairie provinces.

Maybe breeders are worried that the value proposition of new varieties with a price tag that accurately reflects the cost of development is inadequate to entice farmers to purchase new seed. That is indeed a problem, but it’s not the farmer’s problem.

The costs associated with new seed development are great. While breeders need to be rewarded for their efforts, it isn’t just farmers who need to pay for it. If it’s that expensive to develop new seed, maybe we need to reconsider the role of the public purse in this. Farmers are not the only beneficiaries of good quality seed and a strong farm economy.

Another alternative to a trailing royalty or an end-use royalty is to increase our levies to our existing organizations such as Sask Wheat, Canadian Canola Growers and Sask Pulse. These organizations can then provide feedback to breeders on desired traits and assign that cash to appropriate research projects that reflect on-farm demand.

These two alternatives should be on the table right now.

No one wants good quality breeding to disappear. It is not acceptable that AAFC came to us with only two options, already fully fleshed out. In the future, let’s hold meetings around these other two options of up-front royalty costs and increases in levies and include an economic and legal analysis for them.

Farmers have no one to pass their costs off onto when they see an increase in cost in their business. We instead have to increase production and farm size to accommodate these costs.

We inevitably end up over-producing for the demand in the marketplace because our production reflects our need to accommodate our costs and is not necessarily a response to actual demand. The result of increased production without demand is lower grain prices over time. Our economies always adjust because we are price takers.

This has been happening for years, so we can’t expect this situation to be different. There is no guarantee this value will ever come back to us. Don’t promise us outcomes that don’t exist, especially when we have not been presented with any proper economic analysis.

Finally, to charge a trailing royalty or an end use royalty ignores the labour of the farmer.

We put time, our own money and resources into propagating that plant material and those genetics. This on-farm labour and investment creates ownership over that plant material, or at least it used to prior to the inclusion of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (1991) in a sneaky and undebated omnibus bill in 2015.

Under UPOV ’91, it is even illegal for a farmer to select for desirable traits that result from crossbreeding a protected variety with any other variety, unless they pay the breeder for that protected variety, seemingly into perpetuity.

How much more could we accomplish with respect to identifying and selecting the genetics that will see us through the future challenges of changing environment and disease and pest evolution if farm-saved seed and on-farm breeding were encouraged instead of criminalized?

The ownership of farm-saved seed should be especially clear in the case of species that do not just self pollinate, but also cross-pollinate.

Agronomic species are cross-pollinators. The second generation is already genetically diverse from the parent generation and especially different from a hybrid generation. How can we be charged money for doing exactly what farmers have done for 10,000 years?

The genetics are no longer identical to the parent generation, so how can the seed still be owned? To claim this false ownership is dangerous because it doesn’t reflect reality. It’s never good to create an alternative economic reality compared to what the actual case is because it interferes with market feedback mechanisms. Let’s not base our seed breeding system on myths.

We are aware that fast genetic technologies are coming to the seed sector and that it’s beyond government control. For that same reason, the hand of the government does not belong in facilitating private income to seed developers. The government still has a role to play in facilitating public breeding programs and protecting the farmer’s right to save seed.

This letter was written by a group of concerned farmers sitting at the AAFC-facilitated meeting in Saskatoon on Dec. 4, 2018.

Karlah Rudolph, Gull Lake, Sask.
Daniel Bowler, Palmer, Sask.
Ian Nichol, Bateman, Sask.
Gabriel Pinsonneault,
Gravelbourg, Sask.

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