Right to seed is a matter of principle

Last December, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.

This declaration was brought forward by La Via Campesina (LVC), a global movement of small- and medium-scale farmers. The National Farmers Union is a founding member.

One of LVC’s red-line articles in the negotiations was article 19 — the right to seeds.

As organic farmers in Canada, we may not define ourselves as peasants but the definition of a peasant in Article One of the declaration certainly includes me and I would suggest many other organic farmers.

A peasant is defined as any person who engages in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the land.

Changes to Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act in 2015 brought in a farmers’ privilege to save seeds and opened the door to end point royalties. These two changes are key to the current discussions around changes to the Canadian seed system.

As farmers, we now have the privilege to save and re-use seed from our own farms.

But a privilege is not a right — a privilege is something that can be taken away, and under Canada’s PBR laws, the privilege can be taken away by regulation. A change via regulation can be made more quickly and with less debate than a change via legislation.

As well, the farmers’ privilege can be removed for certain crops, for certain regions, for certain farm sizes or for various other situations. Based on current discussions, it appears the Canadian PBR office is preparing to remove the farmers’ privilege for crops such as wheat grown in Western Canada and for horticultural crops.

One thing that struck me as I looked through the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants is how well it fits alongside the general principles of organic production in Canada’s Organic Standards — principles that we agree to uphold and farm under as organic farmers.

These are the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care. Because the development of any new crop varieties relies on work done by generations and generations of farmers to select, save and replant seeds, is it fair to give fewer and fewer seed companies control over newer varieties of seed?

As organic farmers, if we follow the principle of care to manage in a precautionary and responsible manner for future generations, we need to protect the right of the next generations of farmers to save, re-use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed from varieties being developed now, new varieties that farmers will need to cope with a changing climate and all that entails.

There are other ways to move ahead and strengthen organic farming in Canada as it pertains to the development of the new plant varieties:

  • We can make ourselves aware of and push for the NFU’s Farmers’ Seed Act.
  • We can advocate for a re-investment in public breeding for the public good.
  • We can support farmer-led plant breeding initiatives, such as those being undertaken by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and the Bauta Seed Initiative.
  • We can demand that our government representatives support farmers’ age-old practice of saving, reusing and exchanging farm-saved seed.

Whoever controls our seed controls our food.

Ann Slater is a National Farmers Union member who has been an organic market gardener in the St. Marys, Ont., area for more than 35 years. This article is based on her April 12 presentation to the Organic Council of Ontario annual meeting.

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