Letter from Saskatchewan
Farmers beware: Canadian government getting out of the plant breeding business

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 17, 2004: The cat is out of the bag as far as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is concerned. The department's plans to cut research into crop varieties and agronomy and turn that type of research over to the private sector has created a furor in farm circles, and across the prairies. Denials are quick to come, with AAFC ordering its spokespersons to say that no decisions have been made.

Unfortunately for the spin-doctors at AAFC, the slide show they went around presenting to their own department is now floating around in public. It clearly says the federal government is planning to discontinue crop varietal development. This is what it said: "Over the next decade, AAFC will shift funding from lower to higher priority by discontinuing research programs through normal attrition. For example: Plant breeding - discontinue crop variety development research." Sounds an awful lot like a decision to me.

AAFC also made it clear that it sees the future as consisting of partnerships with industry. Even scientists paid by AAFC might find themselves working in (and for the benefit of) a private company. AAFC blames this situation partly on the deteriorating state of its research facilities. It ranks two of these on the prairies, at Swift Current and Winnipeg, as being in poor condition - "Building is beyond its critical life cycle..."

The AAFC slide show also makes it clear there will be fewer research scientists on the government payroll - 500 compared to the present 600, with only 350 of these working directly in AAFC facilities.

While it is contemplating this, AAFC confirmed that it supplied 47 percent of all agriculture research and development money in 2000, with all Canadian governments accounting for 83 percent of agriculture research and development.

Let's be clear. AAFC does intend to do this. Now it is just reacting to a furor it no doubt expected to eventually come.

It is very important that farmers don't miss the connection between this news leaking from AAFC and the changes being proposed to Plant Breeders Rights. One of those would eliminate the sale of "common" seed. Another would allow seed companies to claim both Plant Breeders Rights and patent protection for a variety, thus strengthening the hammerlock the company has over the variety.

Along with these measures will come AAFC's plan to limit itself to "genetic enhancement" and then turn this basic research over to the Monsantos and Cargills of the world so they can finish off the variety and claim sole and complete ownership of it. They will then tie up the use of new varieties in contracts that prohibit seed saving and demand a royalty on every seed planted.

Many farmers are distraught over this attempt to wrench yet more dollars out of their pockets. In the criticism leveled at the Seed Sector Review, the industry task force that pushed for greater powers for seed companies, farmers clearly have said they want the right to save seed.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) says it wants that too. "We have always advocated for a balance of farmers' and breeders' rights under the legislation," said Bill Leask, executive vp for CSTA. This is in contrast to Mr. Leask's earlier quoted statement where he said farmers never had such a right.

Farmers need to read between the lines. A guarantee of a farmers' "privilege" will mean nothing in the future AAFC envisions. When all varieties are produced by private companies and protected by PBRs, those companies will make farmers sign contracts saying they will not save their own seed, and will pay a royalty on every seed they sow. It will be just like it is with the new Hard White Spring Wheats or Navigator durum. The CSTA would like you to believe the changes to the act will actually benefit farmers.

What this is really all about is taking public money now put into producing new varieties, and turning it over to the private sector by giving them the basic research. Then private companies will dip into your pocket for every seed you plant. Quite simply, it is about the privatization of a resource that has been public for 15,000 years.

Just how much more of this does the government think we can stand?

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