Agriculture debate on Bill C-18 sours quickly

The government says opposition MPs, but critics say the government was late introducing the legislation for debate

Hand spilling grain onto black soil.

Opposition MPs have lots of questions and comments about the implications of government legislation to improve the rights of seed developers and change farm support programs.

However, when they challenged some provisions in C-18, the Canadian Agricultural Growth Act, during the first few hours of second-reading debate, the government accused them of trying to hijack the legislation. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the opposition was filibustering the bill, which western farmers need passed so they can obtain cash advances for grain they are having trouble selling because of rail transportation delays.

Second reading is traditionally the stage in the parliamentary process when the parties debate the intent of a bill. Once it passes second reading, the Commons has approved the bill in principle and the opposition has a limited scope for proposing amendments. None of the opposition parties threatened a protracted debate.

Late to the gate

While the government wants the bill passed in time to come in effect in August, neither Ritz nor other government spokesmen noted that the bill was introduced last Dec. 9 and is only now coming up for debate. It has the endorsement of a wide swath of farm and agriculture industry organizations.

At the heart of the opposition questioning were concerns about the bill’s amendments to bring Canadian law in line with a 21-year-old international convention to enable plant breeders to collect royalties.

Canada signed the updated convention of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV ’91) in 1992 but never introduced legislation to implement its provisions, leaving Canada as one of two developed countries with a plant breeders’ rights (PBR) policy that dates back to the 1970s.

Once the government agreed to a tentative Canada-Europe free trade deal last year, it was forced to amend the outdated PBR rules because they could negatively affect European seeds and plant varieties sold in Canada. With the exception of the National Farmers Union, farm groups support the changes led by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) and Grain Growers of Canada (GGC).

From the Alberta Farmer website: Debunking myths around Canada’s UPOV ’91 legislation

CFA president Ron Bonnett says the bill contains recommendations made by farm groups to improve the status of seed developers. He said farmers needed the right to save seed for replanting.

Franck Groeneweg of GGC says the amendments are needed to protect the intellectual property rights of the developers of new plants, which “allows them to generate the funds for investment.” Better PBR rules are needed as government cuts funding for basic agriculture research and development. “We simply must have a competitive intellectual property framework here in Canada if Canadian farmers are to continue accessing many potentially beneficial new seed varieties and traits.”

Vague implications

NDP farm spokesman Malcolm Allen said the legislation is vague on the actual implications of charges farmers could be paying for seed.

“Clearly there are many open questions on UPOV ’91 for a lot of farmers, and legitimately so, as to why we are rushing headlong at this,” he said. The government should allow the Commons agriculture committee to take the time required to fully review the implications of the new seed rules.

He acknowledged the bill has wide support among farm groups.

Liberal spokesman Wayne Easter said the bill would amend nine separate pieces of agriculture-related legislation including fertilizer, animal health, plant protection, monetary penalties, agriculture marketing programs, and farm debt mediation.

He said the government was trying to wiggle out of supporting farmers the way Europe and the United States does. Instead the Harper government wants “to protect corporate rights than farmers’ rights. That is the basic thrust of the bill. It is more protective of the rights of corporations, global corporations mainly, than it is of the rights of Canadian farmers.”

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