The Seed Industry Lobby

What is behind the Partners in Innovation PR campaign?

By now, many people have seen the letter from Partners in Innovation sent to media outlets in an attempt to counteract the National Farmers Union’s campaign against Bill C-18. The NFU carefully analysed the proposed legislation and alerted farmers and the wider public to serious negative implications of this Bill. People have responded appropriately – by spreading the word and building resistance. Clearly, the corporate seed lobby is alarmed.

Who are the Partners in Innovation?

Partners in Innovation is what is often called an “Astroturf” group – a fake grassroots group. While it claims to represent farmers, a closer look reveals that it is actually a mouthpiece for the corporate seed industry. Partnersis part of an orchestrated public relations campaign specifically designed to counter anticipated opposition to the federal government’s agenda to implement UPOV ’91 in Canada.

Partners in Innovation first appeared on the public stage on December 9, 2013 – the same day that Bill C-18 was introduced in the House of Commons. The Partners’ twelve member organizations endorsed the legislation even before its text became public. Although they claimed to represent tens of thousands of farmers, leaders of member organizations proclaimed their support for the Bill before their members had time to read, much less debate and make an informed decision about it.

We should also note that membership in many of the groups that make up Partners in Innovation is not voluntary. For example, all Ontario farmers who sell wheat, corn or soybeans must belong to Grain Farmers of Ontario – regardless of their views about agriculture policy. Similarly, groups such as the Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Wheat Commission, Atlantic Grains Council, Barley Council of Canada Manitoba Pulse Growers and the Prairie Oat Growers Association obtain their membership through compulsory check-offs. Farmers are required to pay a percentage of their sales to these organizations to support crop research and marketing –again regardless of their views on agriculture policy matters. How these organizations develop their policy positions is a mystery to most.

A quick review of where members of Partners in Innovation obtain funding suggests that both the federal government and seed industry corporations have considerable influence over the organizations.

Two Partners in Innovation groups – the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CTSA) and Cereals Canada – are dominated by global seed corporations and grain traders. The CSTA’s Board includes representatives of BASF Canada Inc., Bayer CropScience, Hyland Seeds (DowAgro Sciences), Monsanto Canada, Pioneer Hi-Bred Ltd. (DuPont), Richardson International, and Syngenta Canada. The board of Cereals Canada includes representatives of Dow AgroSciences, Cargill Canada, Bayer CropScience Inc., Syngenta Canada, Richardson International and Viterra, as well as representatives from the Alberta Wheat Commission and Grain Farmers of Ontario, which are both members of Partners in Innovation.

There is also considerable overlap between Grain Growers of Canada (GGC) and Partners in Innovation. Six of the now 16 Partners have board representation on GGC: the Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Wheat Commission, Atlantic Grains Council, British Columbia Grain Producers Association, Manitoba Pulse Growers Association, and Prairie Oat Growers Association. Moreover, in 2012, Syngenta sponsored a two-day course on advocacy and political lobbying for the GGC Board.

Syngenta is also named as a “corporate leader” of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, and provides significant funding to the Horticulture Council of Canada, Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association as well.

Other seed industry giants – BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont and Monsanto – also provide funding and sponsorship dollars to these members of the Partners: the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Horticultural Council, the Federation des Producteurs de Cultures Commerciales du Québec, Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Manitoba Pulse Growers Association.

Some Partners receive funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Several have obtained grants through Growing Forward and Growing Forward 2. As Manitoba Co-operator editor John Morriss noted in his editorial, Keeping the farm organizations in line, groups increasingly appear to be obligated to provide public relations support for the government in return for funding. “If [a given organization] wants to get AAFC to kick in some matching money (though less than it spent before), it has to play ball, including saying nice things in the government press release.”[1]

Some of the Partners involved in research may also believe that with public funding becoming less certain or completely withdrawn, the higher PBR royalty payments made possible under UPOV ’91 will be their only alternative to fund  future plant breeding efforts. Never mind that the royalty payments that are the source of those research funds will be paid by their farmer members when they buy seed each year. These organizations, therefore, are in a conflict of interest. The check-off organizations either make the seed of their newly-bred varieties widely available to the same farmers whose check-off dollars paid for the breeding in the first place, or they support UPOV 91’s privatization of returns to seed, collect higher royalties on the varieties developed with members’ money and use the proceeds to run the organization. Their expectations of the revenue-generating capacity of C-18 may not, however, bear fruit if they have to share royalties with the corporate partners that will increasingly own the germplasm.

Sadly, members of Partners in Innovation that should be looking out for the broader interests of their farmer-members have apparently accepted the government’s directive that “there is no alternative”. Instead of pushing back and demanding that public funding of plant breeding be restored, they have acquiesced.

Where does the NFU funding come from and how do we make decisions?

In contrast, the National Farmers Union has a long-standing policy of not seeking corporate funding or government funding for operations. The NFU’s operating funds are generated through membership fees. The NFU is the only voluntary membership national farm organization. The diversity of NFU membership includes a wide range of producers from commodity grain farmers to dairy farmers to small market gardeners, organic and conventional, from across the country. Only farmers are eligible to be full members with a vote. The organization’s policy positions are developed through a democratic grassroots process whereby resolutions are debated at annual conventions and adopted by majority vote of delegates. All officers are elected from among the membership. The NFU’s decision-making process is transparent, our members’ interests are always foremost and our collective voice is unfettered.

Response to the Partners Letter to the Editor

Turning now to the Partners for Innovation recent letter, there should be no surprise that it contains many contradictions, assumptions and interpretations that benefit the global seed corporations rather than Canadian farmers. After all, Partners for Innovation was created as part of a PR strategy to sell unpalatable legislation to the public and farmers – it exists for no other purpose. If Bill C-18 stood on its own merits there would be no need for the intervention of this industry-backed “Astroturf” group. Therefore, its statements must be considered with a high degree of scepticism. The primary question should be “whose interests are being served?”

On one hand, Partners for Innovation claims that C-18 is required to fund more in-Canada research to develop new varieties adapted to our conditions. On the other hand, Partners say that C-18 is needed so that companies can import varieties they have developed in and for other countries.

They suggest that Canada is off-side internationally in not conforming with UPOV ’91, yet of the world’s 190 countries, only 71 (37%) have signed on to UPOV. Like Canada, 19 of these countries use UPOV ’78: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Portugal, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, and Uruguay, while Belgium continues to use UPOV 1961/72.[2]

A second key question should be “where will the royalty dollars go?” There is no guarantee that all royalty revenues will be invested in research. Nor is there any guarantee that these companies will spend their royalty returns in Canada for the benefit of Canadian farmers. There is also no guarantee that imported varieties will perform well in Canada – especially given that clauses in Bill C-18 would allow the use of foreign studies in regulatory decision-making. Those same clauses would enable the corporate seed lobby to continue its attack on Canada’s variety registration system, seeking to reduce independent third-party reviews and lower quality standards. Only one thing is guaranteed by C-18; there will be increased royalty revenues for companies that hold plant breeders’ rights. Once they receive the money, however, it will be up to them to decide how to spend it.

Partners in Innovation claims that new varieties developed by seed companies will benefit farmers by providing them with new genetics, improved crop varieties, higher yields, and more market opportunities. However, private breeders must focus on the company’s priorities – which are revenues and profits. Jamie Larsen, PhD, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge[3] states the following:

“Private plant breeders work for companies that only function if they turn a profit, therefore the approach to breeding must be direct, with a clear marketable product as an end result. Public plant breeders function, generally, through base funding from their organization, but derive significant levels of funding for their programs from funding bodies that are interested in research that is targeted to address a specific threat or long-term public good research.”

Partners in Innovation claims that Canadian investment in cereals research is low and thus our productivity is low. In reality, the reduction in funding for cereal breeding is the result of federal government policy – a political and ideological choice. In 2013, AAFC announced its decision to quit funding nearly all of its public wheat breeding, saying that private companies refused to invest as long as the public sector was involved. As well, the fact is that returns on investment from cereal breeding are high, with estimates ranging from $20 to $50 for every dollar invested.[4] These benefits have accrued to farmers, their customers, rural communities and the Canadian economy at large.

The problem lies not with the value of cereals research but with government policies that have abandoned the development of public varieties and their plan to sell the germplasm developed by public breeders so that private companies use and profit from it. The key to success for this corporate/government strategy is that farmers pay higher royalties for seed. UPOV ’91, therefore, is less about attracting investment and more about forcing farmers to pay private companies more for annual seed purchases so that the considerable returns to cereal breeding can be delivered to their shareholders rather than to the public interest.

The statement by Partners in Innovation that using PBRs is voluntary is technically correct but also misleading. Yes, applying for PBRs is voluntary, but it is highly unlikely that a breeder would fail to do so. The 2012 Federal Budget directive has stopped public breeders from developing varieties in major crops, so there will be virtually no new public varieties eligible for plant breeders’ rights. Private breeders are unlikely to forgo the opportunity to collect royalties and/or prevent others from using those varieties.

2014 New Varieties graph

Farmers can use older varieties that are no longer PBR-protected – at least for now. New regulations that came into force on June 4, 2014 allow variety registrants to de-register varieties at will. While many varieties are currently in the public domain, in some crop kinds, such as alfalfa, soybeans, canola and potatoes, most are registered by private corporations, and are thus vulnerable to de-registration. Over time, many of the currently available royalty-free varieties may be taken out of commerce.

Farmer check-off organizations have provided a way for farmers to support public-interest plant breeding – in cereals and pulse crops, for example, by co-funding projects along with governments and universities – while also providing farmers with a say in the goals of the research, thus realizing farmers’ priorities for varieties. PBRs as well, are a revenue source for public breeders – one that may well be a last resort in the context of a decade of political decisions to cut back on public funding for plant breeding and other research in the public interest.

Partners in Innovation mentions that PBR-holders are required to make their varieties available to other breeders for research purposes, but they leave out the detail that varieties “essentially derived” from those stocks would be owned by the first company and not the researcher who bred any further varieties. This means that seed companies that obtain or develop new germplasm also have ownership rights over potential future varieties – even if the companies do not develop that material themselves. As a result, there would be little incentive for independent breeders to work with PBR-protected varieties. Moreover, by requiring Canada’s public breeders to sell the germplasm they have developed, the federal government is also privatizing all future varieties that will be developed from these lines.

Partners in Innovation further misleads by saying that Bill C-18 allows farmers to store seed for use on their own farms. In fact, Section 5.3(2) of Bill C-18 only exempts farmers from PBR-holders’ exclusive rights to “(a) to produce and reproduce propagating material of the variety;” and “(b) to condition propagating material of the variety for the purposes of propagating the variety.” The right to store, that is “(g) to stock propagating material of the variety for the purpose of doing any act described in any of paragraphs (a) to (f)” remains firmly in the hands of the breeder.[5]

Partners in Innovation minimizes the authority granted through Bill C-18 to companies to collect royalties on the crop grown from seed for which royalties had not been collected, suggesting this would only happen in the case of illegally acquired seed. In fact, the seed trade is proposing and promoting an End Point Royalty system to obtain royalty payments on crops grown from farm-saved seed (FSS). Their interpretation is that FSS – even with Farmers’ Privilege – denies the company a reasonable opportunity to collect a royalty.

“UPOV 91 standards allow that if the breeder does not have ‘reasonable opportunity’ to exercise his right to collect a royalty on the seed (in this case, FSS or certified seed), then the breeder may collect a royalty on the grain that is produced from the seed. When the royalty is collected on the grain harvested and not on the seed, it is called an end point royalty (EPR).”[6]

Partners in Innovation carefully words its statement that “Bill C-18 does not allow the Minister to take away Farmers’ Privilege”. In fact, that power would reside with the Governor in Council (Cabinet) – not the Minister. Bill C-18 would amend the PBR Act to read:

75. (1) The Governor in Council may make regulations for carrying out the purposes and provisions of this Act and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, may make regulations …
(l.1) respecting any classes of farmers or plant varieties to which subsection 5.3(2) is not to apply;
(l.2) respecting the use of harvested material under subsection 5.3(2), including any circumstances in which that use is restricted or prohibited and any conditions to which that use is subject;[7]

The process for regulatory change calls for consultations and public review, however it is up to the departmental bureaucracy to decide how extensive the consultation will be and who will be consulted. Furthermore, there is no requirement that views expressed by the public be taken into account in the final wording of the regulation, nor are proposed regulations debated in the House of Commons or any of its Committees. If Bill C-18 is passed, we can expect regulations to claw back the Farmers’ Privilege measures.

Partners in Innovation is an element of a public relations strategy to promote legislation that the government and seed industry knew would be unpopular. The beneficiaries of UPOV ’91 are clearly the global seed companies that stand to gain vast new sources of revenues and reduced costs along with increased market share and greater influence over food and agriculture. The global seed industry is using Partners in Innovation in an attempt to undermine the NFU’s very successful campaign that has educated and mobilized the Canadian public as a result of our thorough research, critical analysis and effective community-based action by our members and allies.

The NFU has not only reviewed Bill C-18 with a clear eye, but we have also proposed an alternative vision: to re-establish public plant breeding programs in major and minor crops in the interest of Canada’s farmers and to create and pass a Seed Act for Farmers[8]. We believe that as a society, we can turn our agricultural policy in a different direction for the sake of our environment and to put food sovereignty at the forefront.

Canadians are listening to and acting with the National Farmers Union because they recognize that we speak truth to power.

Appendix A:

Partners In Innovation graph

[1] Editorial: Keeping the farm organizations in line, by John MorrissManitoba Co-operator, Dec. 16, 2013.

[2] Members of the International Union for the Protection Of New Varieties Of Plants (UPOV)

[3] Plant Breeders’ Perspectives, Germination Magazine, January, 2014.

[4] R&D in Canadian Grain Sector: Return to Agricultural Research

[5] Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act

[6] End Point Royalties, by Stuart Garven, Germination Magazine, January 2014.

[7] Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act

[8] Fundamental Principles of a Farmers Seed Act, NFU, 2014.