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Editorial: The farm organizations ‘that matter’

The recent decision to join UPOV ’91, the international agreement on plant breeders’ rights, was part of Bill C-18, “The Agricultural Growth Act.” Back in the day, it would have been called something like “An Act Regarding the Application of Plant Breeders’ Rights in Canada.” The previous Bill C-18 would have been “An Act to Amend the Powers of the Canadian Wheat Board,” but instead was “Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act.” The terminology is a not-so-subtle way of framing the debate — “You mean you’re against ‘growth’ and ‘freedom?’”

That’s just part of the government’s “for or against” strategy on many issues, and for farm organizations, there’s plenty of pressure to make sure they’re counted on the “for” side. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, referring to the decision to join UPOV ’91, said that “all the farm organizations that matter” were in favour.

There was an amusing sidelight to the UPOV ’91 announcement. Those of us in the media were advised on Feb. 26 that there would be an announcement in Winnipeg at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 27.

The Western Canadian Wheat Growers won the race to show they matter, with their release praising the announcement arriving at 10:31. The Alberta Wheat Commission was a little more restrained — its release didn’t arrive until 10:59. The Grain Growers of Canada just made it under the wire, with our inbox showing 11:17, barely a minute ahead of the government’s release at 11:18.

It’s obvious that there was advance communication between government officials and these organizations to make sure they showed support for the bill — not that it was needed, as it had already been passed. But it shows the pressure on these organizations to make sure to show they’re the ones “that matter.”

The National Farmers Union is definitely not in that category, and its release did not arrive for another four days. In some ways the NFU release was as predictable in its opposition as were the other organizations in favour. It had the usual rhetoric about multinational companies getting all the benefit, which would cause many to quit reading fairly quickly. But if you read on, it raised some interesting questions — for example, the implication of C-18’s “essentially derived” clause. Among other things, it gives the breeders’ rights holder the “exclusive right to do any act described in any of paragraphs 5(1)(a) to (h) in respect of… any other plant variety that is essentially derived from the plant variety if the plant variety is not itself essentially derived from another plant variety.”

What the heck does that mean? It may be a perfectly reasonable provision for protecting a breeder’s rights, whether that’s Syngenta, or Uncle George who after years of selection in his backyard has developed a new colour of petunia. But we’re pretty sure the organizations that fired off those press releases so quickly don’t know what this means.

The NFU release also asked whether end-point royalties might mean having to pay them if you fed production from PBR-protected grain or forage to your own livestock. Maybe not, but an interesting question.

The problem is that we have a policy environment that doesn’t encourage asking those questions, lest you be labelled as being opposed to “agricultural growth.”

However, this environment also puts general farm organizations such as KAP at a disadvantage in being seen as one of the ones “that matter.” It has this inconvenient problem of a democratic process, where members have to meet, discuss and vote before taking a position.

But once that position is formulated, KAP and other general farm organization representatives know how to play the game. The NFU doesn’t seem to — at times it seems to deliberately stay on the outside, with its often-aggressive attitude and its use of rhetoric which reinforces the perception that it’s stuck in the past.

That’s too bad, because sometimes the NFU does some thorough and valuable research. We’ve just seen another example, with its report on farmland ownership and related issues such as input financing. It provides some useful information about the interests that are now competing for Canadian farmland, including our own Canada Pension Plan. There’s no more important issue in Canadian agriculture, especially since there seems to be hints of pressure to open provincial farmland ownership laws to more outsiders. There are many of them out there, and they’re eager to help relieve farmers of the “burden” of land ownership.

Have a look at the report and its eight recommendations, and see if you disagree with any of them — even though they’re made by the NFU.

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