The process for cancelling crop variety registrations will be part of the upcoming ‘modernization’ of Canada’s Seeds Act — a move welcomed by some farm groups that want continued access to farm-saved seed without an additional royalty attached.
“We want to hear from everyone involved with seeds, everyone who has a stake in the regulations, whether or not it is appropriate for registrants to cancel registrations for varieties that still have value and are wanted by producers,” Wendy Jahn, national manager of CFIA’s Seeds Section and Canada’s variety registration registrar wrote in an emailed response to questions earlier this fall.
“There may be stakeholder consensus that criteria should be met before a variety can be removed from the marketplace by the registrant.”
(See more about the variety registration cancellation process in the 2021 edition of Seed Manitoba, included in the Nov. 26 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.)
As things stand variety owners can cancel, or deregister, a variety at will. That has some farmers wondering if seed companies will cancel a registration to force farmers to buy varieties that come with royalties on saved seed.
Why it matters: Stronger plant breeders’ rights regulations implemented by Canada in 2015 under UPOV 91 contain provisions to restrict farmers’ ability to save seed, without additional cost. Some farmers worry if seed companies can cancel registrations on varieties that don’t fall under UPOV 91, they will have fewer options.
“We’d welcome the opportunity to comment (on the variety cancellation process,)” Terry Boehm, the National Farmers Union’s plant breeders’ rights expert, said in an interview Nov. 18.
“We feel the freedom of others to cancel varieties is completely inappropriate.”
Boehm, who farms near Colonsay, Sask., said so long as a variety isn’t causing agronomic or market harm, it should remain registered and available for farmers to grow.
Some seed sector officials have said companies won’t cancel a registration so long as there’s commercial demand for it, but Boehm doesn’t believe it.
“Every company, if they have a salable, equivalent variety they can replace an old one with, and cancel the old one with either a renewed term of plant breeders’ rights, or the possibility of royalty collection, from a pure business standpoint they absolutely would do that,” he said.
“In a world of shareholders expecting a higher return every quarter absolutely this is going to go on and it is going on.”
The federal government promised under UPOV 91 farmers would be able to keep saving seed to plant again, Boehm said. Most farmers presumed that privilege would be free as it had been traditionally. But in 2018 the seed industry asked farmers to accept either one of two additional royalties — end point or trailing. The latter, introduced this spring as a pilot ‘variety use agreement,’ is a contract that charges farmers a fee if they save seed from varieties covered by the agreement.
It was introduced to collect more money from farmers to encourage more plant breeding. Advocates for the system contend farmers will pay more but get more too, ultimately making them more competitive and profitable.
UPOV 91 has provisions, if enacted, that would restrict farmers’ seed-saving options even more, Boehm said. The review of the Seeds Act puts all that under the microscope and farmers need to pay attention, he said.
“The problem is people really don’t understand the implications and realm of possibilities that this legislation and UPOV system is designed to create,” Boehm said. “They hear farmers’ privilege but they don’t read beyond that… and they don’t know what the breeders’ rights are.”
The Manitoba Crop Alliance (MCA) will pay attention to the Seeds Act review too, CEO Pam de Rocquigny said in an interview. The MCA heard farmers raise questions about the registration cancellation process during consultations on the proposed new royalties, referred to as ‘value creation, which started in November 2018.
“It’s something definitely as an industry as a whole need clarification on that process,” she said. “Who are the players, and with any agreement between the players is there something built into those agreements that outlines what happens with a variety cancellation?”
Since the MCA represents a number of different crops, it may have a different position depending on the crop, de Rocquigny said. One size won’t fit all, she said.
Since the Seeds Act review is just starting, the MCA doesn’t have a position, de Rocquigny said.
“I think once it comes out the board will determine the level and type of engagement that will take place.”