National | Opinion

Op-Ed Seed Synergy and Value Creation — A Solution in Search of a Problem

Op-Ed by Cam Goff

A few months have gone by since the first round of “consultation” meetings on “value creation” and the folks at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) are in damage-control mode, trying to re-spin their message to farmers after its disastrous reception before Christmas.

In their November and December meetings, AAFC and its partner, the Seed Synergy group, were telling farmers that Canada’s public plant breeding system was broken and that the federal government was not willing to increase its funding. Farmers were told that unless we help private plant breeders to step in and rescue us, Canada would become an agricultural backwater and suffer economic devastation.

In order to entice these private saviors, all farmers need to do is encourage our government to pass regulations allowed under the Plant Breeders Rights Act that would hand them a suite of control mechanisms for new plant varieties registered after February 2015.

Private breeders want the authority to impose additional royalties on farmers who use new varieties — either on the entire crop (Option 1 – End Point Royalty) or on the portion of the crop saved for seed to grow a future crop (Option 2 – Trailing Contract Royalty). Royalty rates would be decided solely by the variety’s owner, along with any other conditions they might attach to the use of the variety. The Seed Synergy group expects a new royalty regime would bring private seed companies over $100 million per year.

The Seed Synergy group’s mantra “Industry led, Government enabled” can be understood as “we’ll tell you what we want, you make it legal.” So, AAFC is attempting to get farmers to accept one of these two options, at the behest of the Seed Synergy group.

AAFC’s “consultation” is based in large part on the false claim that Canada’s public breeding system does not perform as well as the private sector.

Canada’s public plant breeding system has operated for over a century. It started with farmer-scientists like Seager Wheeler and evolved into government infrastructure and programs that put the needs of Canada’s farmers and citizens in first place. Its history right up to today is studded with world-class plant breeders consistently developing field crop varieties that are arguably the highest quality in the world, as well as fruit and vegetable varieties uniquely adapted to our northern climate. A peer-reviewed study showed that publicly bred wheat had 35% greater rate of yield increase compared with privately bred canola between 1981 and 2000, and 13% greater rate between 2000 and 2011.

Farmers have willingly contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the public system by way of per-bushel crop check-offs and levies. Independent studies show returns from plant breeding range from $7 to $20 per dollar invested, with AAFC itself claiming an 11:1 return rate. Our public plant breeding system retains the revenue generated by its services, returns real value to our public system, our farmers and the Canadian economy.

In response to farmers’ concerns that the government is trying to exit plant breeding, AAFC says the federal government is not going to get out completely, but will continue doing “discovery science” – the long, hard background work of developing new lines – before handing promising germplasm to private industry to finish and register, which would allow the seed companies to control access to the varieties and reap the royalties from farmers.

Not surprisingly, farmers’ response to AAFC’s options for “value creation” by compelling farmers to fund private sector breeding with royalty payments was overwhelmingly negative.

As a result, AAFC has changed their approach. Now they proclaim they are open to other ideas – without a formal process for any input on alternatives. Their new pitch is a soft-sell, but they’re still selling the same unwanted options.

The critical question is why does AAFC believe Canadian farmers and citizens will be better off if the returns from public and farmer money invested into plant breeding is diverted to private companies where it can flow offshore to fatten shareholder dividends?

There is no doubt that the changes AAFC is proposing will create untold wealth and power for private plant breeders at the cost of Canada’s farmers and citizens, and ultimately give them control over the very basis of our food system: seed.

Given the health and vigor of Canada’s public plant breeding system, and farmers’ willingness to step up and help to enhance and improve it, it appears that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s “Value Creation” initiative is an unwanted solution to a manufactured problem.

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