Tractor sowing seeds on a field. Photo: © vkara \ Fotolia.com

The federal government is proposing yet another omnibus bill, this time in the form of Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act. The bill entered its second reading on March 3, 2014, and, if passed, will amend nine separate pieces of federal legislation, though the amendments being proposed for the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act are garnering the most attention and concern.

These amendments would bring Canada in line with international plant breeders’ rights standards as outlined in the 1991 International Convention for Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91), to which Australia, the European Union, Japan, and the United States are all signatories. Those opposed to the bill – the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) among them – argue that the amendments will limit farmers’ rights, especially as they pertain to seed saving practices.

Saving seeds for the following year’s crop is common practice among farmers and bill C-18 would hinder this practice significantly. Current legislation ensures protection of intellectual property rights for new plant varieties, but the new bill takes these rights even further. Under the new legislation, the right to produce, reproduce, condition or sell the propagating material of the new plant variety would be exclusive to the plant breeder. While a proposed provision would offer an exception for farmers, they would only be allowed to save and condition the seeds, not stock or store them.

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Additionally, the bill would extend plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) from 18 years to 20 years and enable end-point royalties (EPRs), which allow the plant breeder to collect royalties at any point in the production chain, including after harvest. Right now royalties can only be collected when the seed is sold. As a result, control over seeds – and over food – would become concentrated in the hands of very few breeders, mostly large corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Cargill and Syngenta.

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All of this on its own is enough cause for concern, but in May 2013 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) proposed regulatory changes that would allow plant breeders to de-register their varieties. For farmers to sell their crops at full price they have to use registered varieties, whether they’re protected by PBRs or not. Under current regulations, when PBRs expire after 18 years the varieties enter public domain. The proposed changes would give breeders the ability to de-register their varieties before the PBRs expire, thus making it impossible for farmers to use them and forcing them to purchase the most recent varieties instead.

Those in favour of C-18 argue that the changes would encourage greater innovation among plant breeders in Canada and allow farmers access to a greater variety of seeds. However, extending PBRs does not guarantee that private breeders will increase development of new varieties, and may in fact hinder new varieties from being developed. Rather than allowing local farmers and publicly funded breeders to develop varieties suited to specific regions, private breeders have developed single varieties that are planted in monocrops, thus limiting bio and genetic diversity. The notion that we need private breeding for innovation is a fallacy. Publicly funded plant breeders have developed a number of valuable new plants in the past, one of those being canola, which has become an important Canadian crop.

In 2012, however, budget cuts limited Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) breeding activities to the point that they now only develop germplasm for new seed varieties, which then has to be sold to private breeders for further development and commercialization. As such, Bill C-18 does little for public breeders and instead places more power and control in the hands of corporations.

As an alternative, the NFU has suggested a Seed Act for Farmers. Such an act would preserve farmers’ rights to grow, save and use seed for planting; allow royalties only at the time of seed sale, thus prohibiting EPRs; ensure that varieties remain in the public domain after PBR expirations; prohibit gene patents on seeds; and prohibit the use of Genetic Use Restriction Technology, commonly referred to as Terminator Technology, which makes propagation from saved seeds impossible. Plant breeding through conventional methods would continue among farmers and public breeders, and PBRs would exist to protect intellectual property while still allowing farmers to save seeds. This would enable farmers to develop region-specific varieties and in effect increase the number of available varieties, as well as enhance plant resilience against eventualities such as drought, infection, and flooding.

Of course the issue goes beyond preserving farmers’ rights, though that’s an important part of it. As activist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva put it in an interview with the CBC:

A seed is not an invention. The best that a corporation can do is put one gene into the cell...which then becomes a plant. Adding a gene is not creating a plant.

Allowing even more so-called protections for plant breeders will simply move us one step further into a food system that is controlled by a handful of corporations. This will not only limit the rights of the people who produce our food, but will limit biodiversity, genetic diversity and resiliency in our food plants by reducing the number of local varieties, ultimately weakening the security of our food system.

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