SeCan was ahead of the curve when founded in 1976 — and still is today, says general manager Jeff Reid.
“I think it is interesting that 40 years after SeCan was initiated, it seems in many respects to almost be just coming-of-age now, with all the talk about public, private and producer partnerships,” Reid said in an interview ahead of SeCan’s anniversary celebration, held during the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association’s annual meeting at Riding Mountain National Park July 6.
“I think sometimes when there is a problem to solve we start looking at creating new things as opposed to saying, ‘is there a solution here that we are not seeing?’
“In that regard SeCan, I would say, is more relevant now than it has ever been.”
SeCan, a not-for-profit company and Canada’s largest distributor of certified seed, with more than 700 members ranging from seed growers and processors to retailers, was created to get new cultivars produced by publicly-funded plant breeders to farmers faster, while efficiently collecting and remitting royalties to fund more variety development.
From the get-go it was a private-public endeavour and arguably ahead of its time. SeCan is also unique in that anyone in Canada’s seed sector can join, so long as they pay the fees and adhere to the rules.
SeCan has more than 480 varieties of cereals, oilseeds, pulses, special crops, grasses, and legumes and returned $97 million in royalties to plant breeders.
But the return to farmers and Canada’s economy is millions more, said Larry White, who was SeCan’s third general manager from 1981 to 2005. Just getting a new hard red spring wheat with a couple of bushels an acre yield advantage out to farmers “one year sooner means millions of dollars for the whole industry,” he said. “That to me was the major contribution.”
Before SeCan’s formation, Canada’s seed sector struggled with getting new varieties out, White said. Many seed growers were also unhappy with a system that saw new varieties mostly go to pedigreed seed growers with accreditation to grow “select” seed. Many seed growers didn’t get access to lucrative new varieties early in the propagation process.
There were other irritants, including a drop in pedigreed seed sales to commercial farmers, White said.
Several universities, anxious for more plant breeding funding, were looking for a way to capture a return on their innovations at a time when plant breeders’ rights didn’t exist. A couple of universities tried releasing a new variety to one seed company, but when companies left out complained, the industry looked for an alternative. “And SeCan was the other way,” White said.
Breeders’ rights were also on the minds of SeCan founders, but didn’t come as quickly as expected. Although UPOV ’78 provided the first international framework for breeders’ right, Canada didn’t adopt it until 1991.
In some countries a government department distributed seed, others relied on private companies, while in others it was done through seed growers. SeCan was a hybrid.
“They came up with an idea for a nonprofit organization that would include all of the players,” White said.
“It was really almost a melting pot of public and private coming together to get that job done in distribution,” Reid said.
One of SeCan’s first varieties was Bruce, a feed barley developed by the University of Guelph, which earned $300,000 in royalties.
SeCan, which was initially run part-time by Canadian Seed Growers’ Association general manager Ed McLaughlin, started with 26 directors representing everyone from publicly funded breeders and seed growers to seed plant operators and provincial departments of agriculture.
The board was cut to eight in 1998, reflecting changes in the seed industry and SeCan’s role. Initially all publicly developed varieties were distributed through SeCan, but by the 1990s the rights to varieties were tendered.
“SeCan essentially no longer had a monopoly on those products,” Reid said.
“We also started initiating collaborative research agreements with the public sector.
“Until that point SeCan was just the distributor, but then we actually began taking baby steps to actually start facilitating and funding that research.”
For example, SeCan invested in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) successful efforts to develop midge resistant wheat.
Soon after SeCan’s creation. pedigreed seed sales doubled, White said. SeCan got new seed to farmers faster by estimating the potential demand, then getting seed to many seed growers to multiply up ensuring lots of supply the first year of launch, he said.
SeCan also started promoting new varieties through advertising and demonstration plots.
Although most of its varieties come from AAFC, SeCan works with a half-dozen independent, European companies to get their varieties into Canada, Reid said.
“Increasingly that is where we see the role of SeCan,” he said. “It is to give the critical mass to all those small, independent players… We can actually put significant enough dollars back into research and development, strategy and branding and communications to allow them to be effective.”
It’s difficult to predict what the seed business will look like in 10 years, but there’s lots to be optimistic about, Reid said. New developments in biotechnology are speeding up plant breeding and making it less expensive, he said. More companies can get into it and the business doesn’t necessarily have to be dominated by a few, big players. However, opposition by some to genetically modified organisms could undermine innovation, add to production costs and ironically drive smaller players out, Reid said.
“As a result SeCan is going to be putting in a fairly significant investment in the new Centre for Food Integrity and working with Farm and Food Care to try and get out the good messages about what we mean by modern farming and the new technology that comes along with that, whether it be biotech or low-rate pesticide,” he said.
SeCan is also going to encourage its members to support Farm and Food Care, he added.
As a not-for-profit company SeCan is a natural to partner with farmers who want to invest in variety development, Reid said.
“I think it really drives efficiency because we don’t have a layer of shareholders where we are generating a profit that is going off to (them),” Reid said. “Any excess of revenue over expenses that goes into our surplus fund has to go back into research and development.”
By focusing on getting new varieties through the testing and registration process and then seed multiplication and distribution SeCan is a powerful partner for big and small seed developers, he added.
“It’s only an narrow band where we are horizontally integrated, but we think that is becoming an increasingly vital role that we can fill in not only when working with the public sector but also the private sector,” Reid said. “We think there are going to be more players in the future to bring more an interesting seed innovation to the market. I think there is a vital role there that we can play for anyone and everyone in the industry as opposed to trying to do everything all by yourselves.”