Saskatchewan, Canada, December 1, 2004:
As farmers in western Canada recover from a very difficult
year, they will begin to think about the crops that must be
planted next spring. For some, it may be a struggle just to
find seed that will grow.
While farmers are contemplating this, they will also find
themselves confronted with much larger questions concerning
seeds. One of these revolves around suggested changes to the
regime governing Plant Breeders Rights and the patenting of
plants. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is currently asking
for comments on suggested changes to the legislation governing
the seeds farmers plant each spring.
It is worth remembering that the notion plant breeding should
be done for profit by private companies is a relatively recent
one. A mere 30 years ago, almost all plant breeding was done
by government research stations and universities. Given the
central role agriculture played (and still plays) in the economy,
it was seen as a benefit to the whole society when farmers
were able to grow new and better varieties. It was also clear
that the expertise to produce new varieties and the concern
for the public welfare existed in these government departments
and research institutions.
In the 1990s, in the frenzy of cost cutting that followed
large budget deficits, the Canadian government began to withdraw
dollars from research and spout the line that private sector
companies would take up the slack if we would make it sufficiently
profitable for them. Along came Plant Breeders Rights (PBRs),
with the idea that companies could charge farmers royalties
on seed sales. These royalties were to be the incentive to
fund further varietal development.
Many farm groups criticized PBRs, but they passed anyway.
At that time, the federal government promised there would
be no reduction in public plant breeding under the new regime.
Now the government says PBRs do not go far enough. The many
changes proposed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency include
allowing for a longer term for PBRs, allowing varieties to
be protected both by PBRs and by patents, restricting the
use of protected varieties in further breeding, and much more.
The CFIA claims the new legislation will protect the farmers'
right (they call it a privilege) to save seed, but with patents
and PBRs allowed on plants, this is an illusion.
While this alone is worth looking at, the icing on this cake
hasn't even been discussed publicly. Along with the proposed
changes to PBRs, the government is also privately and quietly
plotting to remove itself from plant variety research. It
will focus instead on "genetic enhancement and germplasm".
The implication is clear. Government will do the background
research on germplasm, and then turn this over to companies
like Monsanto to do the final development and to charge farmers
for the seeds.
What will the loss of government plant breeding mean to farmers?
Will private industry pick up the slack?
The CWB recently released its survey of the varieties of
wheat and barley farmers planted in 2004. Prairie-wide, about
70 percent of acres planted to hard red spring wheat were
to varieties that came from Agriculture Canada. Barrie and
Superb were the leading ones. Another 8 percent came from
the University of Saskatchewan. For durum wheat, 97 percent
of acres were seeded to Agriculture Canada varieties. For
hard white spring what it was 100 percent. In hard red winter
wheat, varieties from Agriculture Canada and the University
of Saskatchewan accounted for over 99 percent of seeded acres.
In barley, the situation is much the same. For two-row malting
barley, nearly half the acres in the west were seeded to a
single Agriculture Canada variety. Most of the rest were seeded
to varieties from prairie universities.
The fact is private companies will take little interest in
small acreage crops for the Canadian prairies like winter
wheat, durum, and so on. Without the tremendous work done
by Agriculture Canada scientists, Canadian farmers will fall
behind their counterparts in other countries in terms of quality
of our crops.
As you can see, the federal government's agenda for seeds
is a one-two punch for farmers. Changes to PBRs will make
it easier for private companies to make money off the seeds
farmers grow. The federal government then proposes to phase
out of plant variety development, to leave the door open to
private companies to take total control of the seed industry.
The period for comments on the government's proposal ends
on March 8, 2005. The proposals can be found at www.inspection.gc.ca/english/plaveg/pbrpov/ammende.shtml
and there is more information on the National Farmers Union
website at www.nfu.ca
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.