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Action Alert: Your CFIA survey response is critical for seed quality and access to seed!

The federal government is doing a major review of the Seeds Act Regulations. Everything is on the table.

The push for this review comes from multinational seed corporations that want the rules radically changed to serve their own interests. There are a number of ways farmers will be able to provide input to let the government know what we need and want. The first opportunity is on now: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is doing a stakeholder survey to get input on potential changes to how seed is regulated in Canada. There is a link to the survey at the bottom of this message – please fill it in after you read the background information below. The deadline is Monday March 15.

Because seed is essential to farmers, the National Farmers Union has been advocating for farmers’ seed sovereignty for decades. By filling in the CFIA’s survey, you as an individual farmer can register what matters to you and support the interests of farmers all across Canada for rules that ensure we have high quality seed, and continue to have access to seed we want and need.

When filling out the survey, answer questions in the first section “Tell us about yourself” as an individual, according to your personal situation as a farmer. Note that the survey is anonymous – they don’t ask you to identify yourself.

Background to help you fill in the Seed Modernization Survey

Important: The survey is only about the regulations that come under the Seeds Act. The review and the survey are not about the regulations under the Plant Breeders Right Act (farm saved seed royalties, “value creation” or farmers privilege), the Canadian Grain Commission or about GMOs (Plants with Novel Traits).

Questions 1 to 9 are about the seed grade tables. These set the minimum purity standards for seed when it is sold, as well as the information requirements on seed labels. There are grade tables for all different types of seed (cereals, pulses, forages, vegetables, etc.). These set maximum limits for weed seeds, seeds of other crops, (and ergot bodies, sclerotina bodies and/or loose smut where relevant) and minimum limits for seed size and germination rates. Click here If you would like to see the grade tables. The existing requirements provide for highly reliable seed for farmers. If the grade table standards were weakened, seed quality would be reduced, and farmers would bear the resulting costs and risks; and if additional labelling or testing requirements were made mandatory it could create technological barriers or high costs that smaller independent seed growers would be unable to absorb.

When farmers exchange or sell older varieties of non-pedigreed seed to other farmers and they do not advertise, there are no grading or labelling requirements. Note that it is illegal for farmers to sell seed of varieties registered after February 2015 because that is when the new Plant Breeders Rights Act came into effect.

Questions 10 – 13 are about variety registration. Our current process for variety registration is a key to quality control, transparency and improvement of new varieties of Canada’s major field and forage crops. The regulations do not require registration of all crop kinds – for example vegetable seed varieties do not need to be registered, and neither does corn (maize). Click here to see the complete list of varieties that are covered by the registration regulations.

If variety registration was required for all crop kinds it would create a lot of barriers for seed growers of vegetable seed. Canada has a very small commercial vegetable seed sector, and most are small operations. Requiring variety registration for vegetable seed would be onerous; the high cost would reduce the amount of vegetable seed grown in Canada and reduce the diversity of vegetable seed available to farmers.

The existing variety registration regulations support the Canadian Grain Commission’s mandate to in the interest of farmers, establish and maintain standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulate grain handling in Canada, to ensure a dependable commodity for domestic and export markets. Our seed regulations also ensure crops grown from registered varieties produce valuable end-use qualities, making it possible to sell Canadian commodities even with the high the cost of transporting commodities long distances to overseas markets.

The NFU has a long-standing position that variety developers should not be allowed to request deregistration (cancellation) of varieties. Older varieties that are not covered by plant breeders’ rights are in the public domain; therefore, farmers can purchase them without having to pay royalties. When a variety is deregistered, it is not allowed to be sold as seed. Seed developers have an incentive to deregister older varieties, as this would eventually force farmers to use varieties that require royalty payments to the variety developers.

Question 12 asks whether there should be a review of the current regulation which allows varieties to be deregistered by the variety developer. We would support such a review, and would call for deregistration only if the CFIA believes the variety would cause harm if used.

Question 13 concerns heritage and alternative-bred varieties of the major field crops that require registration (click here to see the list) – it does not affect heritage, or famer-bred, vegetable varieties.

There is currently a small seed market for heritage grains such as Red Fife Wheat that do not have the uniformity characteristics required for variety registration. Farmers who buy this seed usually grow these crops to sell for a premium to artisanal bakers – not as bulk commodities delivered to country elevators.

There are also some farmers doing on-farm breeding to develop new varieties that perform well under low-input production systems and which may be more adaptive to a changing climate. They currently face numerous barriers to registration, preventing potential new varieties from reaching a wider market. It would be valuable to explore regulatory provisions for heritage varieties and alternative-bred varieties as long as they do not weaken regulations that uphold seed quality and access to seed.

Questions 14 to 17 are about privatization of CFIA roles. The term “alternative service delivery” means privatization. An example is the 2013 privatization of Seed Field Crop Inspection services, which resulted in significantly higher fees for seed growers. The increased cost of mandatory inspection is either passed along to farmers who buy pedigreed seed or added to seed growers’ costs, which makes it harder for independent seed growers to survive.

If the CFIA stops providing more services and delegates its authority to a third party on a fee-for-service basis, there will be less public accountability and higher costs to farmers and seed growers.

The proper role of a regulator is to safeguard the public interest and to put a check on the powerful to prevent them from taking advantage of others in the system. If regulation is done by for-profit “alternative service delivery” providers, there is a fundamental conflict of interest.

Seeds Canada, which restricts its voting membership to for-profit companies involved in the seed sector, is lobbying for a larger role in regulating seed in Canada. Seeds Canada is the new organization dominated by the world’s largest seed/chemical/biotech corporations which was formed through the amalgamation of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, Canadian Seed Institute (CSI); Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada (CSAAC); and the Canadian Plant Technology Agency (CPTA) in late 2020.

The NFU’s position is that the CFIA should not explore further “alternative service delivery” arrangements.

Questions 17 – 18 are about what is important to you when you make decisions about what seed you will use.

Question 19 asks you to rate the current seed regulations. For the most part, the NFU is very satisfied with the Seed Regulations as they are. Farmers are confident that when they buy seed it is high quality, and it provides access to seed that grows well in our conditions, it is free of weed seeds, and will produce a crop that our customers value. The existing regulations allow independent seed growers to produce seed needed for those who buy pedigreed seed, and allow for farmers to save their own seed or sell non-pedigreed seed of older varieties to each other. Canada’s very small vegetable seed sector is able to provide a wide diversity of seed that meets purity and germination standards.

Question 20 invites you to add additional comments and make suggestions. This is an opportunity to highlight what matters most to you. Seed is fundamental to agriculture, and the regulation of seed needs to be done in the interests of farmers and in the public interest. We need regulations that maintain a strong, and growing role for the Canadian public plant breeding sector so that farmers will continue to have varieties that perform well in our growing conditions. We need to maintain our access to seed, including farm saved seed and older varieties. We need to ensure that the private interests of multinational corporations are held in check by regulations – if anything, we need stronger regulations.

The deadline for completing the CFIA needs assessment survey is March 15 – click here to begin!