Protect food system a seed at a time

In 1961, a dozen countries formed the intergovernmental organization UPOV, which sought to profit from the application of intellectual property rights to new varieties of plants.

Since then, UPOV (Union for the Protection of new Varieties of Plants) has enacted several new regimes that place increasing restrictions on the use of any plant reproduction material (seeds, tubers, cuttings, etc.). These restrictions aim to limit the free sharing and reuse of seeds and will commodify what has previously been in the public domain and free to use without cost.

The basis of our society’s food system is founded on the plants that we grow on our farms, orchards and gardens. From large acreage field crops to small garden patches and fruit trees in our backyards, as well as forages that feed our domestic animals, the cornerstone of all food that sustains our civilization is based on plants.

For thousands of years people have gathered and bred native plants to produce better varieties with improved characteristics to feed us. Traits such as disease resistance developed in one country were shared freely with others, helping to supply people with a reliable and abundant supply of food. As society and agriculture developed, institutions such as monasteries and universities joined individuals in this work.

Then, within the last two centuries, governments recognized the importance of breeding plants for the conditions found in their countries, and developed taxpayer-funded public systems. Canada’s federal and provincial governments have stood out in this regard, originating varieties of all types of grains, fruit trees, berries, potatoes, vegetables and more that were adapted to our country’s varied and harsh climates.

Now, all Saskatchewan farmers and gardeners are faced with the possibility of legal consequences should the latest UPOV regime be enacted by Canada’s federal government. Incredibly, the Saskatchewan Party seems to be unwilling to stand up for its citizens, as it has refused to ask the federal government to stop its plans to allow all new varieties of plants to be subject to royalties or fees should growers re-sow any plant material.

While this is a complex issue that is too complicated to go into detail in this piece, UPOV ’91 could criminalize any individual who uses plant material (seed, tuber, cutting, etc.) from a protected variety of plant (grain, flower, vegetable, fruit tree) without paying an additional fee to the variety’s owner. Allowing this to happen would place the basis of our food system into the hands of multinational corporations.

Agriculture Canada has put forward a seed framework in an attempt to force Canadian farmers to pay royalties or fees on their use of farm-saved seed. This has resulted in intense opposition from Saskatchewan farmers against this effort. They realize that this will cost them millions of dollars a year collectively, and subject them to a system of corporate oversight and control.

The major concern for our province is the fact that most of the crops grown in Saskatchewan have been developed using public funding. This means that all of the work over the past two centuries may ostensibly be handed over to corporations for their profit, instead of contributing to the public good.

Saskatchewan citizens have invested heavily in the development of our publicly funded food system, through their federal and provincial tax dollars and direct farmer checkoffs. The Saskatchewan NDP recognizes the importance of maintaining public control of this invaluable resource. We will make every effort to ensure that our farmers, gardeners, and orchardists can continue to freely reuse their harvested material to grow another crop.

Leonard Dales is chair of the Saskatchewan NDP’s agriculture and rural life committee.

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