Over the last two months farmers have become aware of an ominous drive, co-ordinated by elements of Canada’s seed industry and financially aided by our federal government, that is attempting to eliminate our right to freely save and reuse our own seed.
This story actually begins in 1990, when the Canadian government adopted the UPOV ’78 model law for Plant Breeders Rights, despite warnings that it could lead to private industry’s control over the foundation of all agriculture: seed and all other propagating material. (UPOV stands for the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.)
In 2015 Canada adopted UPOV 91. This updated convention prescribes far greater powers for allowing corporations to control and profit from the seeds that form the basis of our food system. It also transformed the right of farmers to save and reuse seeds into a privilege — one that could be removed or altered by regulation.
This led to an immediate and ongoing campaign by elements of Canada’s seed industry to push for regulations to allow them to seize control of our seed network and eliminate farmers’ historic co-operation and sovereignty over their use of seed. This campaign by corporate seed industry lobby groups has been titled “Seed Synergy” and is being supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to the tune of nearly $500,000 in Growing Forward 2 money.
In the first stage of its campaign, the Seed Synergy group claimed it was simply trying to streamline the registration process, eliminating duplication and making it faster, easier, and less costly for it. Oh, and by the way, possibly replacing the basic public plant-breeding system that Canada has successfully operated under for the past century.
Well, time moves on, and plans change. Now, two years later, their message is no longer about streamlining the varietal registration process – they now insist that our public plant-breeding system is “broken” (their words) and must be replaced. It is no surprise that they recommend replacing it with a system that would allow the ownership, control, and domination of our seed supply by any company at any price they are able to charge. Any remaining public component — paid for by taxpayers and farmers of course — would be relegated to the heavy lifting and background science, which would then be turned over to the companies to charge farmers for the finished product.
And what will that cost us? It turns out that no one has done any real cost analysis, so in terms of dollars, no one knows. But Seed Synergy and AAFC both call this whole idea “value creation,” so somebody must be going to make some money off of this.
On examination of the self-serving justifications being offered by the sponsoring parties, it appears that no value will be created for either farmers or taxpayers, but that value certainly will be captured by the seed companies. As for who that value is extracted from — it will inevitably come from farmers.
Fortunately, this story is far from over, and its ending has not yet been written. Farmers must now take all available opportunities, whether at farm shows, commodity group meetings or the AAFC consultation process, to ensure farmers’ right to save and use their own seed is upheld.
Cam Goff is National Farmers Union first vice-president (policy). He farms with his brothers on their 4,000-acre operation near Hanley, Saskatchewan.