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Old MacDonald Had a Seed

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Old MacDonald Had a Seed

Throughout the Prairies and farming communities across the nation, an issue is being hotly debated by both multi-hectare farmers and small-market gardeners: Is the Canadian government handing over control of our food system to transnational biotech corporations?

Throughout the Prairies and farming communities across the nation, an issue is being hotly debated by both multi-hectare farmers and small-market gardeners: Is the Canadian government handing over control of our food system to transnational biotech corporations? Or is Canada finally positioning itself to become more competitive in the global agri-food market?

The kernel of the debate is whether farmers and gardeners have the right to save, reuse, and exchange seeds. Is saving seeds a privilege granted by corporations under special circumstances, or is it a right established over millennia of farming practices? Should farmers pay royalties to companies that develop and sell seeds every time they plant seeds or harvest a crop? Will the use of seeds saved by farmers for their own use be outlawed? At this point there are more questions than answers.

The Seeds of Change

Currently, farmers’ rights to save seeds are regulated under the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act (1990, c.20) and the Seeds Act (1985, c.S-8). This legislation is administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

Under the existing plant breeders’ rights (PBR) system, plant breeders of new varieties of seeds have “exclusive rights to produce and sell [these] in Canada.” The current act, however, does not prohibit farmers from saving and reusing seeds. In practice this means that crop seeds, when saved and reused by farmers, become what is known as “common” seeds.

Proposed amendments to the legislation, say critics, would impose royalties on common seeds, making them too expensive and inconvenient to use and would, therefore, compel farmers to buy and use only certified seeds produced by agri-tech corporations. Farmers would no longer own seeds but would be reduced to, in the colourful rhetoric of political debate, mere “renters of corporate seeds.” Proponents of the amendments counter that they would “enshrine” farmers’ rights to save certain types of seed varieties.

Whether the amendments threaten or protect farmers’ rights remains to be seen. But how did these proposed amendments originate? Was there something wrong with the existing PBR system?

Industry-Driven Growth

In 2003 a consortium called the Seed Sector Advisory Review Committee (SSR) began an initiative to restructure the seed industry. The SSR is made up of four groups: the Canadian Seed Institute, the Grain Growers of Canada, the Canadian Seed Growers Association, and the Canadian Seed Trade Association. The latter group’s members include biotech giants, such as Bayer, Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta Seeds, known to the public for genetically engineered seeds, pesticides, bovine growth hormone (rBGH), and other agro-chemicals.

The SSR’s recommendations for legislative and policy changes to the seed industry were submitted to the CFIA in 2004. After a consultation and review period, which ended March 8, 2005, the government is now reviewing the feasibility of the amendments that arose out of the SSR process. These amendments would bring Canada’s legislation in line with the 1991 Convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 1991).

The Canadian Seed Trade Association maintains that Canada must change its PBR system to comply with UPOV 1991. Compliance is needed, they say, to “recoup [industry] investment in research, development and commercialization of crop genetics.” Croplife, a trade association that represents pesticide and biotech companies, claims amendments to plant breeders’ rights are necessary at this time to boost profitability and fuel further investment. The Canadian Seed Trade Association claims that private sector investment in biotech R & D nearly tripled between 1987 and 2001, and now private investment in plant breeding amounts to more than $70 million.

The CFIA concurs that Canada must offer financial and regulatory incentives to plant breeders who invest in the development of Canadian crops. Acquisitions and mergers like the recent buyout of Pioneer Hi-Bred seeds by Dupont for $10 billion US will drive the innovations necessary to make Canada “a positive working environment for research and plant breeding.” But do these industry incentives come at the cost of farmers’ rights and economic well-being?

Down on The Farm

Critics of proposed amendments to the PBR system say the changes will restrict farmers’ rights to save seeds and add to farmers’ costs, while they deregulate oversight on corporate practices–enriching corporate coffers.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) opposes the proposed amendments. They point out that UPOV 1991 contravenes farmers’ rights to save seeds as outlined in the 2004 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The NFU also charges that industry-driven changes to legislation will compel farmers to buy only certified seeds and, in essence, outlaw common seeds. Government and public participation in plant breeding will be reduced, and, in the end, farmers will pay billions of dollars in royalties and fees to transnational seed companies for the right to plant and harvest crops.

Royalty payments on farm-saved seeds, linking crop insurance and the awarding of lucrative contracts to the purchase of certified seeds, and expanding seed-patent protections-all proposed amendments to the PBR system-will have severe economic implications for Canada’s grain industry, according to the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), the largest wheat marketer in the world. By one estimate, compulsory purchase of certified seeds alone could cost each farm an average of $1,400 per year.

The Canadian government maintains that by invoking a potential exemption to UPOV 1991, farmers would be allowed to “continue saving and using seed of a protected variety for their own use.” This is known as “farmers’ privilege.”

The CWB says that “farmers’ privilege” is a “misnomer and does not accurately reflect farmers’ longstanding practice of saving seed for their own use.” Saving seeds, they claim, “is a right, and not a privilege,” a right that should be “entrenched in federal legislation and policy.” The exemption for farmers’ privilege, furthermore, is not explicitly provided for in the amendments.

Sowing Dissent

NDP Agriculture critic Charlie Angus and Foreign Affairs critic Alexa McDonough tabled a motion in March 2005 to address what they see as CFIA’s attack on farmers’ traditional rights to save seeds. Angus has also spoken out about a separate but related issue for farmers: Monsanto’s push to end the moratorium on so-called terminator seeds, which are genetically modified to produce plants with infertile seeds. In a House of Commons debate, Angus charged that the biotech industry is “going after the very seeds in the ground and turning our farmers into sharecroppers for Monsanto.”

In May 2005 Conservative MP Scott Reid presented to the House a petition from the National Farmers Union on the right to save seeds, which read as follows:

“We, the undersigned citizens of Canada, recognize the inherent rights of farmers–derived from thousands of years of custom and tradition–to save, reuse, select, exchange, and sell seeds. Current and newly proposed restrictions on farmers’ traditional practices–resulting from commercial contracts, identity preservation (IP) systems, and/or legislation–criminalize these ancient practices and harm farmers, citizens, and society in general.

“Therefore, your petitioners call on Parliament to refrain from making any changes to the Seeds Act or to the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act that would further restrict farmers’ rights or add to farmers’ costs. Further, we call on Parliament to enshrine, in legislation, the inalienable rights of farmers and other Canadians to save, reuse, select, exchange, and sell seeds.”

Whoever controls the dissemination of seeds also controls a large part of Canada’s food production system. The proposed amendments, says the NFU, would hand that control over to transnational seed companies.

Patenting Life

Critics of the SSR also say that its proposals are in line with the May 2004 Supreme Court victory handed to Monsanto over Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto claimed that Schmeiser violated its legal rights as a plant breeder by allowing its patented Roundup Ready seeds to grow on his property. Schmeiser maintains that the seeds accidentally blew onto his property and contaminated his own crop. Monsanto’s claim was upheld by the Supreme Court, although the patented canola seeds were also proven to have accidentally blown into nearby ditches and empty lots.

Because seeds are patentable, they may be legally considered a form of intellectual property. It is arguable, therefore, that any farmer’s right to reuse or save seeds must be governed by the owner of the patent; farmers get one-time usage rights and can be denied any further rights without paying royalties–a common practice under intellectual property laws.

The amendments to Canadian legislation suggested by the SSR process have not yet been passed. The future of farmers’ rights to save and reuse seeds is still unknown, but it’s not difficult to see that the biotech premise of renting corporate seeds has already found roots in Canadian law.

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