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Seed legislation could spell end to farmers keeping seed

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Monday, Sept. 20, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Some time ago I discussed the Seed Sector Review in this column. The review looked at the entire production and regulatory system for the seeds farmers plant. It included seed growers, plant breeders and private companies involved in the seed business, but did not make much of an attempt to involve farmers and farm groups in the discussions.

The Review issued its report in due course. It claimed that the current system does not sufficiently reward plant breeders and hence is not fostering enough innovation. It also discussed the "need" to increase the use of certified seed. This was seen as the vehicle for getting more money into the hands of seed growers, seed companies and seed breeders.

While the report claimed that the increased use of certified seed would mean "more uniform and higher yielding crops" it presented no evidence to prove this. Rather, it left the clear impression that the changes it recommended to the system were largely to benefit seed growers and seed companies.

It appears the government is preparing to implement some of the changes recommended by the Seed Sector Review. Rumours are now surfacing from Ottawa that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been given approval from the Minister of Agriculture to prepare amendments to the Plant Breeders Rights Act. It is suggested that these amendments will reduce the farmers right to save seed to a farmers' "privilege" to save seed for the production of further crops on their own farms, with the payment of additional royalties.

Farmers are quite aware that now if they buy seed of a protected plant variety they can save seed from it for their own use. Prior to Plant Breeders Rights, you could also sell common seed from a variety you purchased, as long as you did not identity it by name. Breeders' rights make it illegal to grow a crop variety so protected, and sell that variety as seed, without paying any fee demanded by the holder of the right.

The amendments suggested by the rumours mentioned above would mean farmers would have to pay the seed company in order to be able to save their own seed. This would drain farmers' pockets, and would lead to greater use of certified seed since the benefit of saving your own would decrease. If Saskatchewan spring wheat growers had to buy certified seed each year, it would increase their costs by an average of $1,400 per farm.

Of course, this would only be true of protected varieties. Most new varieties of all crops grown in western Canada, with the exception of canola, are still developed in public breeding programs using taxpayers' and farmers' money. The problem is, unlike in years past, the rights to these publicly developed varieties are being turned over to private seed companies. The proposed amendments would allow these companies to reap a windfall from farmers.

The exception to this is pulse crops in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Pulse Growers association administers the pulse checkoff that provides the funding that results in most of the new pulse varieties that are developed. The Pulse Growers decided some time ago not to allow varieties developed with farmers' money to be subject to Plant Breeders Rights. They did not want farmers to pay repeatedly for what they already paid.

The attack on farmers' rights to save seed have not gone unnoticed. The Alberta Canola Producers Commission passed a resolution at their annual general meeting earlier this year calling on Ottawa to enshrine, in legislation, farmers' rights to save seed. The resolution demanded that the farmer right to save seed be explicitly defined and included in the Plant Breeders Rights Act. Other farm organizations had best get involved in the debate as well. The government is suggesting a relatively short consultation period before moving ahead.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax