The National Farmers Union is warning that the privatization of seed inspection in Canada starting next year will hurt seed growers and farmers, while making multinational seed companies even more powerful.
“Independent seed growers will find themselves phased out as the seed crop inspection system, along with other essential seed-related systems such as plant breeding and variety registration, become progressively more dominated by private companies,” NFU president Terry Boehm said in a news release.
“The growers will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their independence because the entire seed system will be controlled by a few major players. When that happens, farmers will have very little choice about where they get their seed or what kind of seed they can buy.”
Ottawa announced last year the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would stop inspecting pedigreed seed crops in 2014, and turn the business over to the private sector. The agency charges 75 cents an acre to inspect pedigreed seed fields, but that only covers about half of the cost. It’s expected fees will triple or quadruple under the private system.
The NFU argues government inspection offers societal benefits, including maintaining Canadian food quality and safety; reducing the spread of crop pests; and ensuring varietal purity. And it says private inspectors have an inherent conflict of interest.
“To maintain a customer, the (inspection) company may wink at violations and wield its authority on a personal basis,” a paper issued by the NFU states.
The paper raises some legitimate concerns, but the seed industry is working to address them through checks and balances, said Dale Adolphe, executive director of the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA).
“One of those checks is CFIA doing 10 per cent check inspections,” to verify the private inspectors’ work, he said.
Not doing a proper job could cost the inspector his or her inspection licence, Adolphe said, while a company employing poor inspectors might be prohibited from offering inspection services.
The federal government has been regulating pedigreed seed production since 1928 and seed growers mostly supported the system. The CSGA had no say in the government’s decision to privatize.
“We were basically told the decision has been made, it’s not up for debate,” said Adolphe, adding his association is now focused on designing a private system that will work.
Adolphe also concedes the NFU has a point in arguing higher fees could drive some smaller, or more remote, seed growers out of business.
“What some seed growers are telling us is they’re not going to speculate on their seed acres as much anymore if the inspection rates are significantly higher,” Adolphe said.
However, higher inspection fees won’t greatly affect seed prices and will add only a few pennies to the cost of a bushel, Adolphe said.
Initially, the new inspection system will be conducted by a third party. But there’s talk of going to first- or second-party inspection, which the NFU says will be worse.
First-party inspection is when a seed company is also the seed grower and inspector.
Under second-party inspection a seed company inspects its seed grown by a seed grower with the seed assigned to that company.
First- and second-party seed inspection companies could drive third-party ones out of business by subsidizing inspection fees to their seed grower clients or by forcing them to use their company’s inspection services, the NFU says. The result would be fewer independent seed growers and increased power for the six multinational corporations that dominate global agriculture, it says. The group argues Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and BASF already control 75 per cent of private plant-breeding research, 60 per cent of the commercial seed market, 100 per cent of the transgenic seed market, and 76 per cent of global agro-chemical sales.
“If these policy and regulatory changes are allowed to proceed, global agribusiness corporations will control the entire seed system,” the NFU paper states. “If they control seed, they control our farms, our food and our lives.”