Letter from Saskatchewan
Public seed variety research critical for farmers to thrive

By Paul Beingessner

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Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, 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, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.