Op-Ed: Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act -- Growth for whom?

by Jan Slomp

On December 9th 2013, Omnibus Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act went to Parliament for first reading. Passing Bill C-18 would make Canada compliant with UPOV ‘91, a much more restrictive form of Plant Breeders’ Rights than we currently have. The second part of the Act will prepare Canada’s regulatory regime for fast track approval of feed or food additives, drugs or other inventions that are already approved in jurisdictions we trade with. Bill C-18 also opens the door for farmers to tap into multi-year advance payments secured by crops in storage or grown in the future.

After a groundswell of farmer-led opposition to adopting UPOV ‘91 in 2005, the Liberal government of the day let it quietly die, as it became clear that farmers would be drastically restricted in their ability to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed. The Canadian public clearly demanded that genetic resources remain a public good.

Before reintroducing UPOV ‘91 through Bill C-18, Agriculture Minister Ritz has been actively spreading the myth and managing to convince many farm organizations and commodity groups that saving seed is enshrined in this bill., . It is obvious that UPOV ‘91 gives plant breeders significantly more “rights “ and tools for royalty collection, while farmers’ seed-saving right is reduced merely to “privilege”. A privilege was typically given to peasants by feudal lords, and could be arbitrarily and unpredictably retracted.

A closer look at the text of Bill C-18 reveals that indeed, it talks about a farmer’s ability to save seed. When storing that saved seed however, the farmer needs the permission of the holder of the Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) – which may or may not be given. Of course the breeder has the right to charge royalties as well.

Bill C-18 in fact also empowers government to remove, restrict or limit the farmer’s seed-saving privilege by passing regulations, a process that can happen quickly and without public debate.

UPOV’ 91 has many provisions for royalty collection after a crop has been harvested, when seed is cleaned in seed cleaning plants or when a crop is moved off the farm for sale at elevators and other points of transaction, in the year the crop was harvested or any year after that.

Canada should reject UPOV ’91 and defeat Bill C-18. Instead, we should reinforce our public plant breeding programs. With the continued allocation of farmer check-off dollars, there will be ample funding for essential variety development. There is absolutely no need to grant transnational plant breeders more tools to extract excessive funds from farmers. Adopting UPOV ‘91 may result in some genetic improvements of crops, but at significantly higher costs than a public breeding system -- which benefits the whole Canadian economy. UPOV ’91 would result in significantly higher costs for farmers and growth in profits for Bayer, Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta and other seed and chemical companies headquartered outside of our country.

Jan Slomp is President of the National Farmers Union. He holistically manages a 65-cow dairy farm near Rimbey, Alberta.