E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Review suggests crop insurance be linked to using certified seed

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Tuesday, March 30, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- A couple columns ago I wrote about the Seed Sector Review, a federally funded project initiated by the seed industry. The review has gained little press, but participants to the review seem to believe Canada is facing a potential crisis in plant breeding, due to inadequate rules and regulations.

Reading between the lines, however, it's hard to avoid one or the other of two possible conclusions: either the seed growers and marketers are worried about their declining fortunes as farmers fail to leap to the newest protected varieties, or seed growers and marketers see the potential for a windfall on the horizon if they can convince governments to force farmers to save less of their own seed, and buy more from them.

The Review documents focus a fair bit on how to get farmers to use more certified seed. The benefits to farmers are described as:

  • "More uniform and higher yielding crops.
  • Increased traceability and decreased liability concerns as quality management systems/good agricultural practices are adopted at the farm level.
  • Improved intellectual property protection (and royalty collection) which would in turn support (i.e., fund) more research."

The first issue is one that would be of interest, I'm sure, to farmers. But it begs the question why, if certified seed produces better yields, do farmers not use more of it? Logic suggests that the benefits of buying new seed each year do not outweigh the cost.

The second issue, increased traceability, sounds good, as we've all been told that consumers wants to know where their food comes from. We have often swallowed this, too, but the Canadian Wheat Board tells me that consistency is what customers worry about, not traceability. Traceability may be an issue for meat, because of issues related to food-borne pathogens, but it is not an issue for buyers of grains. They want consistency, above everything, so their mills and bakeries produce a uniform product.

The third issue, greater royalty collection supporting greater research is more complex, and needs a thorough look. This statement implies that if holders of patents and plant breeders rights collect greater royalties, they will pour more into research. There are a few problems with this. If you look at western Canadian crops and breeding programs, you will see that private breeding is concentrated in the canola industry. Most canola growers buy new seed each year, partly because, as Monsanto likes to point out, most canola is Roundup Ready. Growers are obligated to buy new seed. So there is little opportunity to collect more royalties or sell more seed here.

Most cereal crop varieties, on the other hand, have been created in publicly funded breeding programs, many of these funded by farmers through check-offs. For example, on Saskatchewan's list of recommended varieties, all durums, all hard white spring wheat varieties, all Extra Strong varieties, all winter wheats, all soft white spring wheats, six out of eight Prairie Spring varieties, and 19 of the 26 listed hard red spring wheat varieties come from public institutions. Much the same is true for oats, flax, rye and barley.

If you look at pulse crops, most varieties grown in Saskatchewan have come from the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan, paid for by a check-off on pulse crops.

Farmers are already paying for the creation of these varieties and if more money is required, they might well choose to give it through check-offs rather than royalties. They at least have some control over the use of check-off money through their producer-controlled organizations. When royalties go to private companies, there is no guarantee they fund research. As every researcher at the multi-national seed companies knows, they spend far more on advertising than they do on research.

Private breeders do some, though not much work in cereal varieties. Research is much cheaper in canola and seed production faster and easier due to the small seed size. One plant breeder told me the private sector would never be willing to produce a wheat of the quality of Barrie because the cost would be too great.

Since private breeders focus on canola, where they already collect royalties, and public breeders are not crying out for tighter controls and greater access to royalties, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Maybe it all comes down to selling more certified seed so seed growers make more money. The Review documents acknowledge this should not be forced, but go on to suggest that perhaps crop insurance programs should "link insurance premiums with use of certified seed" or "alternatively, only insure certified seed crops."

Some seed growers and their allies in the big seed companies like to spread the hysteria that breeding is in great danger and Canada will be left behind if it does not take more money from farmers and give it to them. The facts don't support that conclusion. Nor do farmers have the kind of money buying certified seed for all their crops each year would take. Worst of all, there is no proof this will benefit them greatly, or even much at all.

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