Producers must have a say in seed research dollars

If more private investment is needed to develop seed varieties, the two models proposed by Agriculture Canada are not going to work.

In reality, we have to wonder if the federal government has lost its drive to do this, given the intense resistance by producers to the process so far, and frankly — given the results of the recent election.

Agriculture Canada has put forward the case that while it intends to continue to invest in grain variety development, more private investment is needed, or else Canadian varieties, particularly cereals, will fall behind those of other exporters. Since more demand for cereals is expected in Asia as developing countries grow, failure to make further investments in varietal development could put Canada at a competitive disadvantage. (About 75 per cent of Canada’s wheat production is exported.)

To that end, two models were proposed. End point royalties would collect funds at the drop-off point, most often elevators.

The second proposal, trailing contracts, would allow producers to replant saved seed for a pre-determined fee. The proposal to place royalties on saved seed has infuriated many farmers, who see saved seed as a long-standing right.

A recent online survey of producers by prairie farm groups shows producers soundly rejected both these proposals, though almost half agree with the need for more seed research, provided they get a say in how some of the money is spent.

A consultation process launched by Agriculture Canada last year and into this year did not go well, earning the scorn of many farmers for its limited scope and for proposing only two pre-determined funding models.

In the face of such strong resistance Agriculture Canada has gone quiet.

It did not help that Ag Canada’s pitch included an argument that Canadian wheat yields had not improved in recent years when other studies suggested otherwise.

There is intense distrust by producers in this process.

Still, since many do agree that more investment is needed, what to do?

In February, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture passed a resolution that rejected the two proposed models but suggested a point-of-delivery check-off. This would meet some farmers’ key concern – that some of the money collected be directed to organizations that give farmers a say in research.

Producers have faced two tough years in which net farm income has dropped – 45 percent in 2018 alone. It’s long been understood that producers cannot pass along increased costs, so any extra funds they pay for royalties comes out of dropping profits. They are also facing difficult markets spawned by trade disputes as well as potential increased costs of the carbon tax.

Enthusiasm for a process that increases their costs for research is understandably underwhelming.

But if there are to be any extra dollars for research provided by farmers they want to maintain public investment in seed research and variety development, they want to preserve their ability to use saved seed, they want to ensure they have the varieties to remain competitive (there are concerns varieties that aren’t subject to new royalties will be deregistered) and they want a say over how some of those dollars are spent.

If the process goes ahead, there will be more consultations with farmers. Ag Canada officials need to put the previous process behind them and listen.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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