ACORN could not run without the many volunteers that help us with various projects throughout the year. We were very lucky to have one volunteer recently offer to write a blog post on a pretty dense and very pertinent topic: Bill C-18. Keegan Smith, a Mt. Allison graduate recently did his homework and submitted this blogpost for us! Thanks Keegan!
Bill C-18: The Agricultural Growth Act by Keegan Smith
C-18, the ‘Agricultural Growth Act’, is a new omnibus bill before parliament that has provoked reactions from farmers, farm associations, and politicians around the country. Introduced by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the document is very large, listing alterations to nine current federal legislations. This broad scope makes full understanding of the document difficult to achieve. Some think it will improve opportunities, encourage exploration and investment, and reduce red tape. Others think it will impoverish farmers while benefiting Big Agri-food and biotech companies.
Undoubtedly the biggest battle has been over the proposed changes to the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act. Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBRs) are a form of intellectual property (IP) right, very similar to a patent. In essence, they protect breeders’ by allowing them to collect royalties on the sale of seeds of their new varieties. They also prevent the unauthorized sale of seed until the term of rights ends, whereupon the new variety enters the public domain.
PBRs in Canada are administered under an international treaty, called UPOV (The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants). UPOV, which had 71 member states in 2013, has undergone several updates over the decades. Most significant for Canada are the 1978 version (which governs our current PBR policies) and the 1991 version (to which we would move under the changes introduced by bill C-18). The 1991 UPOV Act has been adopted by the majority of signatories, and as such, is touted by Minister Ritz and the proponents of Bill C-18 as a step forward.
The Canadian Seed Trade association has been one of the loudest supporters of UPOV91 ratification for years. “The CSTA supports all of the measures included in this Bill as they continue to modernize regulatory and policy measures affecting agriculture and agri-food, but we particularly welcome the changes to Plant Breeders’ Rights,” said CSTA President Peter Entz. “These amendments are very much needed.” Entz feels, however, that many of the concerns surrounding C-18 have arisen as a result of confusion over the bill’s language, and poor communication of its meaning to farmers. “We are working very hard to ensure that accurate information is available to farmers,” he said. The CSTA has made information on Plant Breeders’ Rights freely available at http://cdnseed.org/plant-breeders-rights/, to encourage support for the bill.
But others aren’t so sure. “Amending the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act to align with the requirements of UPOV ‘91 (the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) instead of UPOV ’78 will devastate farmers’ ability to save, sell and reuse seed,” said National Farmer’s Union (NFU) President Jan Slomp. “At the same time, greater corporate control over every aspect related to seed will mean farmers pay much higher seed prices.”
The main change Canadians would see from adoption of UPOV91 is an extension of PBRs. This would give breeders greater control over more of the process of preparing seeds for planting – including conditioning, stocking, and import/export. More importantly is the introduction of cascading royalty rights, which would allow the breeder to collect their royalty share at any point in the season, from seed sale to harvest.
The obvious implication of this act is that breeders will be able to “skim off” farmers’ revenues at the end of a season. While good news for breeders (this would represent a significantly more lucrative revenue stream than sale-point royalties), this could have a substantial impact on farmer income. The NFU, in particular, is concerned that farmers will feel the pinch. “With corporations exclusively controlling everything related to seed, farmers lose their autonomy, Canada loses its seed sovereignty and everyone becomes even more dependent on seed corporations,” said NFU Seed and Trade Committee Chair Terry Boehm, adding that these corporations’ “ ultimate goal is to force farmers to buy all their seed every year.”
What will farmers gain from C-18? The benefit to breeders is clear enough, but are farmers getting a raw deal here? And what about organic growers – will this change practice surrounding certification or GM crops? For the latter: UPOV treats crops equally, whether they’re heritage varieties, modern breeds, or genetically modified. The benefit to farmers rides on breeders’ capacity for innovation, which has been declared the greatest development gain from C-18/UPOV91 enactment.
“Adoption of the 1991 convention will encourage more plant breeding without sacrificing the right of farmers to save our own seed,” said Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ Association President Levi Wood. “It will help ensure wheat
remains a profitable crops option for prairie farmers.” The NFU argues that this isn’t enough to warrant royalty costs to farmers, and insists that breeding should be carried out by public institutions, rather than private ones.
The NFU has drafted a counter-proposal to C-18, which they call the Farmers’ Seed Act. The Act takes a very different approach to seed sovereignty from Bill C-18, and was written as an alternative for farmers to support. “All Canadians can stand behind its principles,” said Boehm. “By calling for our elected officials to act on these principles, we give a strong message about the kind of Canada we want – a Canada that is sovereign in regard to seed and food,” he concluded.
For more information on C-18 and the state of Canadian agriculture, here’s a list of suggested reading:
Atlantic Farm Focus, Mixed Reaction to Bill C-18:
Food Secure Canada, Bill C-18 – The Agricultural Growth Act:
The Western Producer, Ottawa Commits to UPOV 91 for Plant Breeders’ Rights:
Canadian Federation of Agriculture, C-18 is Good News for Farmers:
National Farmers Union, NFU Proposes New Vision for Canadian Seed Ownership:
Stay tuned for more information on Bill C-18, as the Spring ACORN Quarterly Newsletter (mailed to current ACORN members – not a member join today!) will be arriving in your post-office boxes in mid-April and we will be featuring an article written by PEI organic farmer Randall Affleck.