Farmers to pay more and have less say in research with Canadian Wheat Alliance

May 23, 2013  (Saskatoon) - On May 17, ten days after the National Research Council (NRC) announced it is “open for business” with a new mandate to serve private industry’s commercial goals instead of pursuing basic scientific research, the Canadian Wheat Alliance (CWA) – a partnership between the NRC, the University of Saskatchewan and the federal and provincial governments, was launched in Saskatoon. Now, the NRC is to invest in large-scale research projects directed by and for Canadian business. It cites working with partners to increase the profitability of wheat varieties in changing climate as an example of strategic research.

“With the NRC as the lead partner, it is not yet clear who the Canadian Wheat Alliance’s private sector clients will be. It is clear, however, that farmers have been pushed out of the driver’s seat,” said Terry Boehm, National Farmers Union (NFU) President.  “In 32 years of directing public benefit plant breeding research, our farmer-funded and farmer-directed Western Grain Research Foundation has funded over 230 research projects. It has worked with plant breeders at Universities, Ag Canada Research Stations and the Crop Development Centre to develop and release at least 158 new wheat and barley varieties over the past twenty years. Now, the CWA is being set up to occupy our space and override the farmer’s interests.”

Boehm also notes that the CWA’s emphasis on genomics, biotechnology, and pathology could be used to develop genetically engineered wheat, a crop that is soundly rejected by our markets. When pressed about the matter, Minister Ritz responded with a commitment that the CWA would not develop GE wheat.

“We also question the federal government’s decision to close Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg when there is clearly a need for its services,” Boehm continued. “The Centre’s scientists are doing exactly what the CWA proposes to do: breeding wheat varieties, improving cereal quality and developing resistance to diseases and insects.”  The federal government is providing the CWA with $85 million over the next five years, yet the Cereal Research Centre will be dismantled as a cost-saving measure, and its plant breeding research will be contracted out to the private sector – perhaps to the CWA’s yet-to-be-named private partners.

The CWA’s decision-making processes regarding how research dollars will be allocated have not been disclosed. “Given the NRC’s new mandate and the CWA’s invitation for private sector involvement, we expect that companies such as Syngenta will be able to influence the research agenda while getting cut-rate access to Canada’s public plant breeding infrastructure,” added Boehm. 

Developers of new plant varieties obtain Plant Breeders’ Rights, which allows them to charge royalties to farmers when they buy seed. Who would own new varieties developed as a result of the CWA’s activities is still a question. However, U of S President, Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac, indicated that the U of S plans to retain Plant Breeders’ Rights on new varieties it develops and use those royalty revenues to fund its future research.

“Farmers will pay twice for new plant varieties: with their check-off dollars, and when they purchase seed, while private seed companies will reap most of the “profitability” of the CWA’s new wheat varieties,” concluded Boehm.

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For more information:

Terry Boehm, President: (306) 255-2880, (306) 257-3689 or (306) 255-7638 (cell)