Illegal seed exports threaten Canadian farmers’ competitiveness

Kazakhstanis have been buying western Canadian cereal and pulse seed and Canada’s seed industry wants Ottawa to stop the seed from leaving Canada

Kazakhstani companies are illegally buying what some consider to be Western Canada’s crown jewels — high-value cereal and pulse seed.

The varieties were developed publicly, for Canada’s benefit — prompting the seed industry to urge the Canadian government to stop it from leaving the country.

“There is not much more that Canadian companies can do (to stop it),” Lorne Hadley, executive director of the Canadian Plant Technology Agency, said in an interview May 7.

“The federal government, we think, has some opportunity to directly approach the Kazakhstanis and ask them to stop, or put in place restrictions on this product leaving the country to go to Kazakhstan. We think it’s pretty clear when shipments are going for seed use…”

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Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau did not respond directly when asked via email if the federal government would block the exports. However, an official from her department did write that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is monitoring the situation and knows seed distribution companies licensed to sell the publicly developed seed have been trying to prevent the sales.

“Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada does not support the unauthorized export of certified seed,” an AAFC official said in an email May 13. “Any effort to do so is a direct threat to the competitiveness of our agriculture sector and contravenes the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and Canada’s contractual laws.

“Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is… examining what other measures can be taken.”

Why it matters: Canada is well known for exporting high-quality crops, in part because of the varieties developed by public institutions through a combination of taxpayer, farmer and seed company funding.

Adding insult to injury in recent years, Kazakhstan, has become one of the world’s 10 biggest wheat producers and a major exporter, averaging 7.5 million tonnes the last five years.

Canada’s advantage is quality but if Kazakhstan starts growing Canadian varieties it could cut into traditional Canadian markets.

Canada has no law blocking seed exports, which can be done legally under the right circumstances, including ongoing compensation to the seed developer, Hadley said.

Plant Breeders’ Rights rules and contract law, are used to police seed sales domestically and abroad, he said.

Seed companies that obtain the rights to publicly developed varieties sign agreements to sell that seed exclusively in Canada for a set number of years, usually three to five, “to give Canadians an advantage with the genetics… ” Todd Hyra, SeCan’s business manager for Western Canada said in an interview May 7.

“In a time of COVID this (seed issue) is not a big deal… for government,” Hadley said. “We understand that, but in terms of impact for Canadian markets, for Canadian farmers and Canadian grain exporters and processors, this is a pretty big issue.

“We stand behind our product. We work hard. We spend all that time… to explain the quality of our grain on a year-to-year basis. The amount of attention that’s paid to it in the variety registration system is quite high in comparison to many other countries. If something goes through these rigorous procedures… and a year later it’s being grown somewhere else, that’s a problem.”

Before Christmas some Canadian seed sellers turned the Kazakhstanis away, Hadley said.

In the new year they wrote public breeding institutions saying they wanted access to their varieties.

“When the responses weren’t what they wanted they immediately went to using these Canadian intermediary companies and making calls directly to a broad range of seed retailers, growers, even seed dealers that are part of big networks — grain companies and independent retailers,” Hadley said. “And it’s always a big order.

“It’s always virtually cash in advance, or certified cheques or bank drafts. And it’s always urgent.

“Then the product, if it is purchased, goes into mini-bulk bags or something in a different location and then sent, we think in most cases, to Montreal for shipment. But we also know some was slated to have gone out through High River, Alberta.”

How much seed has been illegally purchased, and what varieties are unknown, but some pulse seed has already left Canada, he said.

“Essentially there are things the federal government can do directly against these companies in Canada that are promoting this, or border control,” Hadley said.

Ordinary farmers have also been approached to sell bin-run seed, he said. Most farmers know many varieties are protected. That means farmers can save seed to grow again, but they can’t sell it to other farmers, never mind Kazakhstani companies or their Canadian agents.

Hyra said he was amazed how brazen the Kazakhstanis are.

“As they were turned down they kept changing their stories and company names,” he said. “It was a very frustrating process. I am so pleased with the effort that our SeCan members took to turn these guys away.”

Farmers who do sell seed illegally are undermining their own competitiveness.

“It’s selfish. That’s the word I’d use,” Hyra said.

Kazakhstan and the Canadian Prairies are a lot alike, Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl said in an interview May 7.

“So if it grows well in Saskatchewan it probably grows well in Kazakhstan.”

While Canadian crop genetics are important that’s not Canada’s only advantage, Dahl said.

“It is also agronomic, and it’s also the skill of our producers, our technology and the understanding of our crops.”

This also underscores why Canada must continue to invest in new crop varieties, Dahl said.

“We need to be at the front end of technology and we need to be the early adopter,” he said. “So it’s not the new varieties themselves that are our competitive advantage, it’s the fact that we are on the front end of technology both in terms of genetics as well as agronomy.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

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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