Seed sector merger will affect grain farmers

Seed growers have differing views on a plan to create Seeds Canada

Most Manitoba farmers, unless they are seed growers, haven’t heard of Seeds Canada.

Its pending creation will either help or hurt seed producers and grain farmers depending on who you talk to.

Seeds Canada is a proposed new seed industry organization that will be formed if two-thirds of members of five separate organizations — the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA), the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), the Canadian Seed Institute (CSI), the Commercial Seed Analysts Association (CSAA), and the Canadian Plant Technology Agency (CPTA) — vote to merge.

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The CSGA’s 3,500 members have until 11 a.m. EDT Aug. 26 to submit ballots they received by mail last month.

Voting was supposed to have wrapped up earlier, but was extended because ballots took longer to deliver due to COVID-19.

A virtual special general meeting will allow voting August 27, between 11 a.m. EDT and 12:30 p.m. EDT.

Why it matters: After five years of work, a plan that would see the Canadian Seed Growers Association merge with four other seed organizations is being hotly debated ahead of a vote this month.

Manitoba Seed Grower Association (MSGA) director Eric McLean who grows, processes and retails pedigreed seed at Oak River, supports the merger. The MSGA board endorses it as well.

“We think it will help our members,” McLean, MSGA’s 2014-15 president and a CSGA national board member, said in an interview Aug. 4.

Seed growers are in business to produce and sell pedigreed seed but the 116-year-old CSGA doesn’t have a mandate to promote seed sales, he said. Instead its main role is to certify pedigreed seed production.

“What we’re saying is we need to be able to bring the industry together to have better communications to propel the next-generation seed industry,” McLean said. “We want to be able to move product and talk to companies that are going to bring those products to us.”

Norm Lyster, a Stettler, Alta., seed grower and CSGA president from 2014 to 2016, says the proposed merger will hurt the entire seed sector, as well as grain farmers.

“I will vote against this and tell anybody who cares to listen that they should vote against it as well,” Lyster said in an interview July 28.

Even though seed growers could potentially dominate Seeds Canada, it’s unlikely, because growers won’t have to be members to get pedigreed seed certified, Lyster said. Instead, he expects large, multinational seed companies, currently members of the CSTA, will dominate.

“Follow the money,” he said.

“The multinationals will take what they want.

“This muting of a voice is not only a political muting but an economic muting.

“And you also know there is only one person or two who are going to pay. That’s you the seed grower or you as a commercial farmer.”

McLean says the opposite will happen.

“There was no voice in the first place,” he said.

Seed growers’ fees will remain stable for at least three years, McLean said, adding he doesn’t expect seed growers will be gouged longer term.

If Seeds Canada is created seed growers will have a single window of service and the pedigreed production process will be streamlined.

A consultant’s report estimates savings of $600,000 to $1.5 million a year.

Lyster worries the change will unravel Canada’s robust pedigreed seed system that has served seed growers and farmers well.

Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will continue to oversee the seed sector, its role has been declining and Seeds Canada will accelerate the trend, according to Lyster.

“In my mind this is regulatory capture 101,” he said. “It’s a typical event where the regulated takes over the regulator.

“If you capture the regulator you get to make your own rules.”

CFIA’s oversight has declined due to budget cuts and it’s focused on more important issues such as food safety, McLean said. Ultimately, seed quality is self-regulation, he added. If a customer gets poor-quality seed they won’t buy from that seed grower again.

McLean also says the merger is a separate issue from proposals for end point or trailing royalties designed to collect more money from crop farmers to help fund plant breeding.

“If Seeds Canada doesn’t go forward it does not mean value creations (royalty discussions) stop,” he said. They will continue on.

“But the thing that brings them back together though is if… (Seeds Canada goes ahead) there will be a lot of influence from a grower presence in the new organization versus it staying purely as a trade initiative… If seed growers are absent we won’t have input at the table and it’s going to make that process more and more painful. I think we would benefit if everybody was working together from an industry perspective.”

Merger critics fear big companies will dominate seed production and sales as they have done with canola. But McLean doesn’t expect it to happen. Canola’s circumstances were different, he said.

“As I see it right now the industry has no overly big desire to want to influence that system the same way it did with canola,” McLean said. “I think there has to be a lot more value creation before that can happen.”

Lyster is “jaded” and “disappointed” with the process, he said.

“There’s no end of motherhood and apple pie, but the devil is in the details,” he added.

Change is never easy, but the way McLean sees it the critics are locked into a “romantic notion” of the past instead of looking to the future.

Should the plan be defeated there’s provision for a second vote without changes to the proposal.

“If it was a trouncing… I don’t think we’d have a second vote,” McLean said. “Then hopefully we’d work on CSGA 2.0 because we can’t go back to the way things were.”

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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