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Change is coming in the seed royalty debate, and it could cost farmers

Farmers have a chance to influence seed royalty options, but need to get more involved, says Lynn Jacobson

Farmers can still shape their future contributions to cereal variety development, including possibly a new seed royalty system — but they must participate in the consultation process.

That’s the message Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA) is trying to spread.

Lynn Jacobson.
photo: Supplied

“This is coming and it’s going to cost you money,” Jacobson said in an interview July 23. “You should pay attention. What do you want to do?”

Last fall the federal government began consulting farmers on two new royalty options — trailing and end point — designed to collect more money from farmers to help private and public cereal plant breeders develop improved varieties.

The seed trade says either option will also encourage foreign, private investment into developing new varieties for Canadian farmers making them better off.

Why it matters: These proposals will mean farmers pay more towards the cost of new varietal research and could force farmers to pay a fee to save and reuse their own seed.

There was some opposition to both options, prompting some farmers to suggest others should be explored.

No decisions are likely before the federal election Oct. 21, giving farmers more time to learn about the options and provide feedback, including through a seed royalty survey launched July 15 by AFA and its sister general farm organizations — Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and Agricultural Producers of Saskatchewan (APAS).

Meanwhile, the federal government has been asked to do an economic analysis of the royalty options for oats, barley and flax.

“So a decision has been taken to delay the online consultation (originally scheduled to have begun this spring) until AAFC (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) has an opportunity to conduct that economic analysis and then share it with the stakeholder community,” a government official said July 23.

A trailing royalty would compel farmers to pay an annual fee to plant seed saved from either crop.

An end point royalty would oblige farmers to pay a fee on included crops at the point of sale.

The AFA, KAP and APAS have been discussing other options. Jacobson shared some of the details at a seed industry meeting in Whistler, B.C. earlier this month.

Funds collected from an end point royalty would be distributed to private and public breeders, but a percentage would be managed by farm groups, he said last week in an interview.

Jacobson stressed that despite this newly proposed model, general farm organizations remain open minded about how to proceed.

“We’re trying to stay neutral on it,” Jacobson said. “We’re not suggesting our model at all. We’re asking farmers, ‘what do you think?’

“This is just a suggestion at this point in time. We really want to consult with producers and get more input. That is one thing that has been lacking.”

However, AFA, KAP and APAS have agreed on six principles for the option that’s used. They are as follows:

  • Maintains and enhances public research, development and finishing of new varieties.
  • Preserves or enhances current public funding.
  • Is transparent with producer involvement.
  • Maintains the privilege of farm-saved seed.
  • Systems are administered in a fair and equitable manner.
  • Ensures producers can remain competitive in the world marketplace.

Despite consultations in the fall, as well as presentations at Ag Days and CropConnect early this year, Jacobson said many farmers are still not well informed about what’s being proposed and the potential impact.

“Really, the farmer awareness on this is next to nil and farmer awareness really has to rise,” he said. “We’re basically saying whatever model does come down we need producer input into this. Conceivably people may say ‘no, we just want a little bit more money collected for research and the industry you do what you want, but you leave my public breeding system alone.’”

Some farmers fear proposed changes could undermine publicly funded breeding programs, which also get money through checkoffs collected from farmers, Jacobson said.

AAFC has said it will continue plant-breeding research, but will turn it over to private companies for commercialization if companies get more active in variety development.

“Well, we think that’s a big mistake for us as producers,” he said. “That’s one place we do not want to go.”

Only big companies have the resources to take on AAFC work and bring it to market, he added.

“Our opinion is the seed finishers like SeCan don’t have the dollars to do that.”

Currently the best cereal varieties are developed by publicly funded breeders, Jacobson said.

Many farmers fear without public cereal breeders providing competition to the private sector, new cereal varieties would cost more, he said.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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