Op Ed - Say NO to UPOV ’91!

Behind the noise of the Rob Ford and Senate scandal cover ups, the Canadian government is angling to legislate the removal of a right of farmers that should be non-negotiable.

Ottawa is moving quickly to implement the UPOV ’91 plant breeders' rights convention with First Reading in Parliament of the Agricultural Growth Act, an agricultural omnibus bill. The proponents for this move say that doing this will keep private plant breeding money in Canada and stop us from somehow immediately turning into Luddites.

What is never acknowledged by the supporters of UPOV ’91 is what will be taken away from farmers. In exchange for this increased level of patenting of seed stocks, farmers will lose the right to save, store, sell and re-use farm-saved seed.

Think about this for a second. In contrast to the practice of thousands of years of open source plant breeding – which incidentally has given us our present bountiful harvests – a farmer will NOT be allowed to save the seed they have grown to plant again the following spring if it has Plant Breeders’ Rights attached to it. We currently have a similar system in place for almost all canola grown in Canada because as a GMO, the seed companies have been able to patent canola gene sequences and force farmers to pay royalties every year. The yearly cost of buying new seed is always a sore point with canola growers.

Staying out of UPOV ’91 will not diminish Canada’s importance as a wheat-growing region. Research will always be done here because of our strength in growing wheat. More importantly, we do not need to be hostage to private plant breeders - our public plant breeding system has been doing a good job for a century.

In fact, the canola boom started when an Ag Canada scientist working in the public plant breeding system changed the oil profile of what had been rapeseed, making it usable as a cooking oil. This work was then turned over to private sector seed companies which commercialized – and claimed plant breeders’ rights on – varieties expressing the trait.

UPOV supporters point to the canola model to support their call for giving the entire plant breeding sector over to private interests. But are the so-called ‘amazing gains’ made by privately-bred canola better than the gains in wheat yields and quality achieved by the Canadian tradition of public plant breeding? Dr. R.J. Graf, an eminent Canadian plant breeder, is one among many researchers who points out that gains in canola yield over the last 35 years have increased marginally – just one-tenth of a bushel per acre more per year – compared with increases in wheat yields. 

What is more interesting is that the cost of improving canola yields has been more than three times that of the public plant breeding system’s efforts to improve wheat. Wheat yield and baking quality have been constantly improving for a century thanks to the work of public plant breeders.

There can be no denying the benefits that farmers and consumers have received from the work done at Ag Canada research centres – work that was ongoing until the Harper government set about cutting the budgets of public-interest breeding programs to the bone.

Even a hundred years of successful public-interest plant breeding is nothing compared to the historical importance of farm-saved seed. Since the origin of agriculture, farmers have been selecting, saving and replanting seed from one year to the next, and sharing improved varieties with their neighbours. Ottawa is about to sign an agreement and bring in a law that would eliminate that right for many Canadian farmers.

It is interesting that those who normally scream the loudest about the need to protect property rights are now championing UPOV ’91, a system that will protect only the intellectual property of multinational seed corporations at the expense of the intellectual commons that has been developed, collected and controlled by farmers over millennia.

Stop Harper and Ritz from favouring the rights of plant breeders at the expense of the rights of farmers and consumers to use grain varieties developed impartially in the public interest.

Keep your right to use farm-saved seed. Say NO to UPOV ’91!

by Matt Gehl, a National Farmers Union Board Member who farms near Regina, SK.