Thursday August 21, 2014

Seed regulations worth closer look

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There is an issue facing farmers that isn’t getting as much attention as one might expect.

The federal government is in the midst of making decisions which could fundamentally change what rights farmers have in terms of what rights they have to use the grain they grow as seed.

It has long been a general premise of farming that they retain a portion of the seed they produce to plant in following years.

It is about as simple and reasonable a process as there is, and one which works to ensure continued production over the long term, which historically also ensured a food supply.

The idea of grain production in Canada for sustainable food production for Canadians isn’t really an issue. Reasonably a very few Canadian Prairie farmers could produce enough grain to satisfy domestic production.

But being able to keep grain as seed should be a rather basic, and widely held an anticipated right for producers.

It has been that way since the earliest crops were produced, and has stood farmers in a good position to produce food in an ongoing and sustainable fashion.

In November Canada’s Agriculture Minister, Gerry Ritz, announced Canada plans to sign on to UPOV ’91 by August of this year

“The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) is an intergovernmental organization that has created model laws that allow seed developers to claim property rights similar to patents. Canada joined UPOV and adopted its 1978 model law by passing the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act in 1990. The 1991 model law, known as UPOV ’91, enhances the rights of multinational seed companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Viterra, Pioneer, DuPont and Cargill, while restricting farmers’ rights,” explains the National Farmers Union website.

Now I can imagine some readers dismissing anything coming from the NFU as the organization has a reputation of being reactionary to many farm issues, and have long favoured a more family-oriented vision of agriculture, which seems counter to the general trend of ever-larger operations.

But when UPOV is looked at in context with the federal governments omnibus agriculture bill called the “Agricultural Growth Act” which contains the required amendments to the Plant Breeders Rights Act to conform with UPOV ‘91 among other measures, the situation should be sending up some red flags.

The NFU sets out its key concerns on its website, suggesting adopting UPOV ’91 will immediately:

• reduce the freedom and independence of Canadian farmers by making it much more difficult to save and reuse seed forcing them to pay more for seed;

• transfer millions of dollars every year from farmers to plant breeders’ rights (PBR) holders

• consolidate the power and control of world’s largest agribusiness corporations over seed, and thus over the Canadian farming and food system.

It’s hard not to envision the above scenarios playing out. If companies gain added rights, they will charge farmers, to do otherwise would not make sense from their business perspective, and while the extent of such fees are an unknown, the Canadian acreage and annual production would suggest millions annually.

Now it might be argued many farmers now buy their seed annually, and there are some agronomic benefits from doing that, especially in times of high returns.

The underlying question though has to be how much control of seed to produce food do we want to put in corporate hands?

It’s not being Orwellian to expect the worst of big business, it is a concern based on a lot of past evidence in other areas. To go down that road with food production could be to flirt with ever higher costs for both farmers, and eventually consumers, and so the issue needs more open debate before signing the dotted line than it seems to be getting.

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