Oct. 6, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Stephen Leahy, Inter
Canadian farmers' traditional right to save seeds is being
threatened by proposals to collect royalties on virtually
all such seeds following agribusiness giant Monsanto's
victory over grower Percy Schmeiser.
A recent review of Canada's entire production and regulatory
system for the seeds farmers plant looked at ways to
collect payments (royalties) on seeds the growers save
from their own crops, to link crop insurance to the
use of purchased certified seeds and to increase intellectual
property protection for seed companies.
”It's a fundamental shift in agriculture to the
privatization of seeds,” says Terry Pugh, executive
secretary of Canada's National Farmer's Union (NFU).
”There are no benefits (in this) for farmers.”
Formally known as the Seed Sector Review, Pugh described
the process as an industry-driven restructuring of Canada's
seed production system. Companies such as Monsanto,
Syngenta, Bayer and Dupont, which dominate Canada's
seed industry, are pushing for “deregulation”
and increased profitability, he added in an interview.
The essence of the review is to turn growers into consumers
of seed from producers of seed. ”Farmers can't
believe this is happening,” added Pugh.
Various regulations in Canada's laws have long protected
farmers from unscrupulous seed sellers by requiring
that new varieties of wheat and other grains pass a
merit test. Before they could be sold to farmers their
makers had to prove they offered better yields, improved
disease resistance or agronomic performance.
Until the 1990s most of the research into new seed
varieties was done either by government researchers
or publicly funded university plant breeders. To encourage
corporate seed research, Canada created the Plant Breeders
Rights Act (PBR) in 1990.
Under the PBR when farmers bought certified (high quality)
seed from a company they could save seed from their
crop for their own use the following year but could
not sell it to anyone else. This seed saving for a farmer's
own use could continue indefinitely but growers were
technically prohibited from selling it.
In fact, after several years most farmers felt free
to sell what they felt had become "common”
seed. And seed companies did not particularly object
as long as farmers did not try and pass off what they
felt was lower-quality or impure seed as one of their
That is all about to change as Canada's federal agricultural
department appears more interested in protecting the
profits of seed companies than farmers, says Paul Beingessner,
a third-generation grain and livestock farmer near Truax
in the province of Saskatchewan.
”There's lots of seed trading among farmers here.
We rarely buy certified seed for cereals. It's rarely
better seed and just not necessary,” Beingessner
said in an interview.
If Saskatchewan spring wheat growers had to buy certified
seed each year, it would increase their costs by an
average of 1,400 Canadian dollars (1,110 U.S. dollars)
per farm, he calculates. He estimates that five percent
of all wheat and barley growers in the province, the
heart of Canada's "bread basket,” buy new
The proposals in the Seed Sector Review are an attempt
to force more farmers to buy certified seed from the
seed companies, says Beingessner. ”It's a money
grab, pure and simple.”
The royalty provisions would also mean that farmers
would one day have to pay royalties on traded seed.
Bill Leask, executive director of the Canadian Seed
Trade Association, one of four groups that initiated
the review, would hardly use those words but feels those
who bring new varieties to market should be rewarded
for their efforts.
”It costs between one and two million dollars
to create a new variety of seed,” Leask said in
an interview. The CSTA says it has 577 million dollars
in sales annually.
While he acknowledges that new varieties are only possible
because of the breeding efforts of farmers over the
past millennia, Leask argues "today's seeds are
nothing like they were then, and are long ways from
the seeds of 50 years ago.”
The review's final recommendations will soon be put
before the government but they do not include a royalty
provision for saved seeds, Leask says. ”The NFU
is completely wrong about this. There are no royalty
provisions in Canada.”
However, the seed industry does think royalties have
merit and would like to look at such a proposal in the
future, he adds.
Although the Seed Sector Review began in 2003, it is
consistent with a push for corporate control of seed,
best illustrated in Monsanto's May 2004 Supreme Court
victory over Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, both
Pugh and Beingessner believe.
Monsanto alleged that Schmeiser illegally saved its
genetically engineered ”Roundup Ready” canola
(oilseed rape) in 1997, after the firm obtained plants
from his farm the following year that contained its
Throughout six years of litigation, Schmeiser steadfastly
maintained his fields were contaminated by pollen from
a neighbor’s Roundup Ready canola fields and by
seeds that blew off trucks on their way to a nearby
Despite widespread evidence of contamination on many
other farms, the Supreme Court determined the farmer
infringed on Monsanto's legal rights under Canada's
Patent Act by 'using' the company's patented gene when
he harvested and sold his crop.
That decision remains highly controversial.
Recently Rene Van Acker, a University of Manitoba agricultural
expert, wrote to tell the Supreme Court that seed samples
from Schmeiser's contested 1997 crop that he tested
were not 95-98 per cent Roundup Ready canola, as Monsanto
claimed. Rather, the amount of Roundup Ready canola
in the crop varied between three to 67 percent, depending
on the sample tested.
Other research has shown that Roundup Ready canola
has spread widely, and now shows up in ditches, schoolyards
and city lots. Even the purest, certified non-genetically
engineered canola now contains up to 4.9 per cent Roundup
Ready content, Van Acker writes.
Moreover, the researcher says he cannot find any documents
that substantiate Monsanto's claim that Schmeiser's
crop was 95 percent contaminated.
At the heart of the debate over ownership of seeds
is the principle of a farmer's right to save seeds.
The Schmeiser case and the recommendations of the Seed
Sector Review are completely contradictory to the International
Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which came into force
this summer, says Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, a Canadian
non-governmental organization (NGO) that was heavily
involved in the treaty negotiations.
”The treaty is very strong on farmer seed saving.
Canada was the first country to ratify the treaty,”
Mooney told IPS.
In Leask's view the treaty is all about protecting
the rights of indigenous people in developing countries,
who have saved seeds for centuries. In Canada there
is no legal right of farmers to save seed, he argues.
The review recommends the government acknowledge farmers'
”privilege” to save seed for their own holdings,
an approach Leask supports. ”I don't think farmers
ought to have a legal right to save seeds,” he