The Save Our Seed Campaign

What is UPOV?

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) is an intergovernmental organization that has created model laws that allow seed developers to claim property rights similar to patents. Canada joined UPOV and adopted its 1978 model law by passing the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act in 1990. The 1991 model law, known as UPOV ’91, enhances the rights of multinational seed companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, Dow-DuPont, Limagrain, Viterra, Pioneer, and Cargill, while restricting farmers’ rights. Canada formally adopted UPOV ’91 on June 19, 2015.

Union Farmer Quarterly Article, The Price of Patented Seed

By adopting UPOV ’91 Canada has:

  • reduced the freedom and independence of Canadian farmers by making it much more difficult to save and reuse seed of new plant varieties, forcing them to pay more for seed;
  • opened the door to an end-point royalty system that would allow seed companies to collect royalties on the whole crop grown from new varieties – including each cut of hay on forage crops – if they cannot, or do not collect it on the seed.
  • transferred millions of dollars every year from farmers to plant breeders’ rights (PBR) holders
  • consolidated the power and control of world’s largest agribusiness corporations over seed, and thus over the Canadian farming and food system.

As well, as a result of Canada adopting UPOV ’91:

  • Farmers right to save, store or clean new varieties of seed for replanting has been converted to a privilege — which can be withdrawn by regulation. Read Bill C-18 and Farmers Privilege to learn more.
  • Companies are entitled to royalties for at least 20 years on each new variety for which they hold PBRs (up from the former 18 years under Canada’s UPOV ’78 regime.)
  • Seed cleaners that condition and treat seed, as well as mills and processors that buy crops grown from new varieties will require assurance that the farmer-seller has paid PBR royalties to avoid the risk of litigation by the PBR holder.

Demands under UPOV ’91 for royalty payments, along with potential future restrictions on farm-saved seed, will have long-term implications for Canadian agriculture that will change its structure and negatively affect farmers’ livelihoods. Some of the likely changes include:

  • higher per-acre cost of production due to higher seed prices;
  • lower margins because if end-use royalties are implemented, they will reduce potential gross income at sale;
  • fewer and larger farms because reduced profitability will drive larger scales of production;
  • loss of independent seed cleaning businesses as farmers shift toward buying seed directly from PBR holders or their licensees instead of cleaning a portion of their harvested crops for use as seed;
  • increased litigation within the value chain as PBR holders seek to maximize royalty revenues;
  • increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides as farmers seek to maximize yields and reduce risks to cover the increased cost of seed;
  • negative effects on air, water, soil, biodiversity due to increased use of inputs;
  • loss of vibrant rural communities as economic activity decreases because wealth is transferred from local farmers to distant, often foreign, holders of PBRs.

UPOV ’91 also interacts with other parts of Canada’s seed regulatory system. Proposed and recent changes to the Variety Registration Regulations and the privatization of pedigreed seed crop inspection all work together to tighten the control seed companies can exert over farmers and the food system. The NFU warned about these mechanisms in its 2006 brief, An Analysis of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s “Proposal to Facilitate the Modernization of the Seed Regulatory Framework” UPOV ’91 is one more tooth on the “corporate ratchet” being used to increase and entrench the power of global agri-business corporations over farmers and our food supply.

There are alternatives to UPOV ’91!

Promote the adoption of a truly farmer-friendly seed law that balances the interests of the public, farmers and plant breeders in a manner accepted by the Canadian public, and allows Canada to meet its international obligations for intellectual property rights protection.

Restore Funding to Public Plant Breeding. Canada’s public plant breeders are internationally respected and have made immeasurable contributions to Canadian agriculture. For example, canola was developed by public plant breeders at the University of Manitoba in the 1970s. Laird, a lentil variety suitable for prairie production, was developed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC). Nearly all of our wheat varieties have been developed by AAFC in collaboration with several Canadian universities. None of these varieties would have been part of Canadian agriculture without the government’s long-term support for public plant breeding. The rewards of this public investment are clear.

Federal budgets from 2012 to 2015 reduced funding for public plant breeding, and remaining dollars are being directed to public-private funding partnerships and commercialization initiatives. Public funds therefore are skewed toward supporting private commercial interests rather than public-interest research for public benefit.

Take Public Plant Breeding to Variety Level. The federal government stopped funding public plant breeding of important cereal crops beyond the development of germplasm, which must then be sold to private breeders to develop varieties for commercialization. The new varieties so developed are privately owned and subject to plant breeders’ rights. Farmers, whose check-off dollars support this research, will pay yet again through the increased royalties granted under UPOV ’91. This system of private interests benefitting twice – first by using public research funding and then by collecting royalties on seed and production – is unjust and against the public interest.

Protect farmers from expensive court litigation regarding plant variety and patent disputes. The NFU recommends that the government create a body similar to the Canadian Grain Commission that would settle disputes. Farmers would then be on a level playing field with multinational companies, and legal fees would not impede their defense.

So-called “trade deals” are being used to enforce plant breeders rights and prevent farmers from saving seed. See CETA and C-18 = Too Much Power for Seed Companies and Factsheet #6 for information about how CETA is connected with the attack on our right to save seeds. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations requires countries to sign on to UPOV ’91.

At the 2012 NFU Convention, then NFU President Terry Boehm gave a presentation called “UPOV ’91 Again” outlining the state of the attack on seed saving.

You may also be interested in the film, Seeds of Change, a documentary produced as part of a larger study, a farmer-focused Risk Analysis of Genetically Modified Crops in the Canadian Prairies

In 2005 the NFU worked with allies and citizens across Canada and we were able to stop changes to the Seed Act that were being proposed through the Seed Sector Review.

Together, we can retain control of Canada’s vital seed supply.

Recent developments

The corporate seed industry is pushing for even MORE power to control seed with its “Seed Synergy” campaign.

The corporate seed sector is carrying out a major project they call “Seed Synergy” which aims to influence the expected review of Canada’s Seed Act and Regulations.
The “Seed Synergy Collaborators” are the Boards and Executive Directors of 6 industry organizations that are dominated by the multinational seed companies: Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA); Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA); Canadian Seed Institute (CSI); Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada (CSAAC); Canadian Plant Technology Agency (CPTA) (CPTA has no website – it hires private investigators to find and sue farmers suspected of PBR and patent violations); and CropLife Canada. They are promoting an extreme make-over of Canada’s seed regulatory system that would eliminate public oversight and allow corporations to maximize their power and increase their wealth under Canada’s new UPOV ’91 Plant Breeders Rights regime.
The Seed Synergy “Green Paper” (draft) published in 2017 outlines their vision. On the surface, it tries to appear as if it is solving practical problems and promoting efficiency. In fact, it would put the multinational seed and agro-chemical corporations in charge. A careful reading of the Green Paper indicates that Seed Synergy is proposing to:
  • Fast-track new patented GMO crop approvals to help biotech companies increase their returns from seed royalties.
  • Replace our public the variety registration system and its quality control measures with a list of any and all varieties seed companies want to sell.
  • Empower private seed companies to oversee the seed certification processes and control all the data involved, paid for with tax dollars.
  • Replace independent third-party field inspection of seed crops with the seed companies inspecting fields of the farmers contracted to grow their seed varieties.
  • Water down certified seed standards to the lowest level customers will tolerate as a way to save money.
  • Reduce common seed use as much as possible by making it expensive, difficult, impossible and/or illegal for farmers to sell a crop grown from farm-saved seeds.
  • Make farmers pay End Point Royalties to seed companies on their harvested crops. Double seed companies’ royalty revenues by having the tax-payer match EPR payments by farmers.
  • Restrict the use of Farm Saved Seed by taking away farmers privilege, requiring company permission and payment of royalty to use harvested grain to seed the next year’s crop.
  • Create an industry-controlled database of all seed sales transactions to enforce Plant Breeders Rights royalty payment, make it easier to sue farmers suspected of infringement, and to identify popular royalty-free varieties for de-registration.
  • Make sure seed for any crop new to Canada is subject to Plant Breeders Rights.
  • Lobby for international acceptance of seed and crops contaminated with unapproved GMOs
  • Intensify Canada’s involvement in the international UPOV ’91 organization to enhance the power of seed companies to extract royalties and control access to seed.
  • Remove public funding from government regulatory agencies and authorize a consortium of multinational seed companies to set priorities Canada’s seed system.
  • Create a super-lobby group of agro-chemical biotech and seed companies to regulate seed in Canada.

Amended PBR Act restricts the rights of farmers and other Canadians to save, reuse, exchange, and sell seeds.

On Feburary 27, 2015, amendments to Canada’s Plant Breeders Rights Act came into force after Bill C-18 was passed by Parliament. Now, the UPOV ’91 Plant Breeders Rights regime applies to all new plant varieties if they were granted Plant Breeders Rights after that date. Varieties that were on the market before February 27, 2015 continue to be dealt with under the previous, UPOV ’78, rules. For a 2-page printable summary of the current situation, see UPOV Update, Feb. 2016.

For more information about how the current law affects your seed-saving rights, please see the NFU newsletter article, Seed saving under the amended Plant Breeders Rights Act. The Canadian Seed Trade Association provides a database of crop varieties registered in Canada and their Plant Breeders’ Rights status where you can find out whether the varieties you grow are under UPOV ’91, UPOV ’78 or in the public domain.

On December 9, 2013 Bill C-18, the “Agricultural Growth Act” was introduced into Parliament. It was an omnibus bill that, among other measures, amended the Plant Breeders Rights Act to conform with UPOV ’91. The NFU opposed this bill. Our actions included a citizens campaign called Stop Bill C-18 as well as engagement with the legislative process. NFU Seed and Trade Committee chair, Terry Boehm presented our arguments against Bill C-18 before the House of Commons Agriculture Committee on October 9, 2014. The official transcript of his presentation is posted here.

The NFU also submitted a brief. Later, the NFU presented before the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee on February 3, 2014 (read the official transcript and brief).

Bill C-18 was supported by public relations campaign orchestrated by Partners in Innovation, an “Astroturf” (fake grassroots) group that claimed to represent farmers, but was actually a mouthpiece for the corporate seed industry. The NFU exposed the Partners in Innovation campaign and discredited its claims.

Bill C-18 Amendment BoxAlthough Bill C-18 was passed, the NFU was instrumental in getting a very important amendment passed. The original Bill would have given exclusive rights to stock (store) seed to the PBR-holder, rendering the farmers’ privilege to reproduce and condition seed meaningless. The amendment added the stocking of seed to the farmers’ privilege provisions, which provides more space for farmers to exercise their traditional seed-saving practices than would have otherwise occurred.

The NFU issued a press release after Bill C-18 came into force, Seed companies, not farmers, will gain with Bill C-18 Royal Assent, says NFU. It included the following statement by NFU President, Jan Slomp:

Restrictions on farmers’ seed saving, and the massive transfer of wealth from farmers to seed companies that will follow, are not necessary for the development of useful new varieties. It is a shame that Canada\’s government has decided to pass a law that will enrich some of the wealthiest and most powerful global corporations at the expense of Canadian farmers and the biodiversity of Canada’s food system.”

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