A coalition of farm and agriculture supply groups are defending federal legislation to update plant breeders’ rights from attacks by the National Farmers Union, environmental organizations and the United Church of Canada.
Partners in Innovation includes the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Grain Growers of Canada, the two largest farm organizations, as well as 15 other national and regional commodity and business groups. In an open letter sent to newspaper editors across the country, it outlined its support for Bill C-18, the Agriculture Growth Act, saying it will bring badly needed investment in plant breeding in Canada.
The attack on changes to plant breeders’ rights is “based on claims founded in incorrect information,” the letter says. The coalition says the bill brings Canada in line with the rest of the world. “This is critical to the ability of our farmers and our agricultural industry to compete in the global market and to make a contribution to the effort to feed, fuel and clothe a rapidly growing world population.”
Intellectual property protection is needed to generate funds for investment in further plant breeding and research, the coalition adds. The greatest impact on farmers from amended PBR legislation will be access to new genetics and improved crop varieties that increase productivity, deliver higher yields, and open more market opportunities for farm production — not the loss of control over their operations as the critics allege.
On the contentious issue of whether farmers can save grain to use as seed the following year, the partnership says the bill “does not contain any provisions that would prevent farmers from saving grain for use as seed on their own farms.”
If the government wished to amend that rule, it would have to demonstrate support from those who may be affected by the regulation.
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The coalition says farm groups have been asking for updated PBR legislation for more than 20 years and growers across the country are suffering because Canada has yet to sign the latest version of the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties. “For example, wheat producers in Ontario have been denied access to superior varieties developed in Europe because European plant breeders will not risk their varieties in a market that does not afford the protection they have in other markets. Similarly, potato growers who require varieties that will help them battle disease and adverse environmental conditions are denied access to those genetics because plant breeders will not risk their investments in Canada.”
The letter also notes that cereal research in Canada has fallen behind most other countries. “A recent international study ranks Canada’s ability to generate funds for investment in plant breeding at the bottom of the list of cereal crop-producing countries, with the result that Canadian productivity is also near the bottom of the same list.”
When C-18 was introduced Dec. 9, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he wanted the bill passed in time for its various provisions to come into effect this Aug. 1. The bill underwent a few hours of debate March 3 and nothing has been said about it since. A Ritz spokesman said the government hasn’t decided when debate will resume. Parliament will rise for the summer in late June.
The NFU and its supporters say the legislation will make “it much more difficult (for farmers) to save and reuse seed forcing them to pay more for seed.” As well, it will “consolidate the power and control of the world’s largest agribusiness corporations over seed, and thus over the Canadian farming and food system.”
The partnership counters that Canada must “take every possible action to attract investment in plant breeding and variety development for Canada.”
It says plant breeders’ rights are a voluntary vehicle for collecting a royalty on seed and not a barrier to use in research by other scientists. “It is an intellectual property tool that can be used completely at the discretion of the breeder. In addition, farmers can choose not to use PBR-protected varieties. Of the 359 registered varieties of wheat available to farmers, only 91 are protected by PBR. Only 59 of the 252 registered barley varieties available to farmers are protected by PBR, and only 29 of the 126 registered oats varieties are protected by PBR. Farmers have plenty of choice.”
Nearly half of the varieties covered by breeders’ rights “were developed by public institutions.” Universities, provincial research facilities, and Agriculture have received royalties from private organizations to help fund their plant-breeding programs,” the letter says.