A solution in search of a problem

Agriculture Canada is in damage-control mode, trying to re-spin its message to farmers following “value creation meetings held late last year.

Ag Canada and its partner, the Seed Synergy group, told farmers that Canada’s public plant breeding system was broken and that the federal government was not willing to increase its funding. Farmers were told that unless we help private plant breeders to step in and rescue us, Canada would become an agricultural backwater and suffer economic devastation.

To entice these private saviours, all farmers need to do is encourage our government to pass regulations allowed under the Plant Breeders Rights Act that would hand them a suite of control mechanisms over new plant varieties registered after February 2015.

Private breeders want the authority to impose additional royalties on farmers who use new varieties — either on the entire crop (Option 1, end point royalty) or on the portion of the crop saved for seed to grow a future crop (Option 2, trailing contract royalty).

Royalty rates would be decided solely by the variety’s owner. The Seed Synergy group expects a new royalty regime would bring private seed companies more than $100 million per year and Ag Canada is attempting to get farmers to accept one of the two options, at the behest of Seed Synergy.

Canada’s public plant breeding system has operated for more than a century. Its history right up to today is studded with world-class plant breeders consistently developing field crop varieties that are arguably the highest quality in the world.

A peer-reviewed study showed that publicly bred wheat had a 35 percent greater rate of yield increase compared with privately bred canola between 1981 and 2000, and a 13 percent greater rate between 2000 and 2011.

Farmers have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the public system by way of per-bushel checkoffs and levies, with Agriculture Canada itself claiming an 11:1 return rate. Our public plant breeding system retains the revenue generated by its services and returns real value to our public system, our farmers and the Canadian economy.

Agriculture Canada maintains that the federal government is not going to get out of research completely, but will conduct “discovery science” — the long, hard background work of developing new lines — before handing promising germplasm to private industry to finish and register, which would allow the seed companies to control access to the varieties and reap the royalties from farmers.

Not surprisingly, farmers’ response to the offered options for “value creation” was overwhelmingly negative.

As a result, Agriculture Canada has changed its approach. Officials there now say they are open to other ideas. Their new pitch is a soft-sell, but they’re still selling the same unwanted options.

The critical question is why does Agriculture Canada believe Canadian farmers and citizens will be better off if the returns from public and farmer money invested into plant breeding is diverted to private companies where it can flow offshore to fatten shareholder dividends?

There is no doubt that the changes Agriculture Canada proposes will create untold wealth and power for private plant breeders and ultimately give them control over the very basis of our food system: seed.

Given the health and vigour of Canada’s public plant breeding system and farmers’ willingness to step up and help to enhance and improve it, it appears that Agriculture Canada’s so-called “value creation” initiative is an unwanted solution to a manufactured problem.

Cam Goff is the National Farmers Union’s first vice-president for policy.

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