By August, the federal government plans to pass legislation strengthening Plant Breeders’ Rights so that this nation will finally conform to the international UPOV’91 treaty. The National Farmers Union continues to raise alarm bells over the change and their fear mongering resonates with those who like to view farmers as the victims of big business.
Most of the hubris surrounds the ability of farmers to save their own seed, but in truth many farmers are not fully aware of how the current rules work, let along what the changes will mean.
Most varieties of wheat, durum, barley, oats and flax are currently protected by Plant Breeders’ Rights meaning you can save seed for your own use, but you can’t sell or trade the seed to another producer. Just check the seed variety guide.
In practice, regulators typically go after those making significant sales of protected varieties, but it’s still illegal on a smaller scale.
Under the updated legislation, the ability to save and use your own seed is specifically granted under Farmer’s Privilege, but the naysayers claim that just calling it a privilege shows it’s something that could be removed.
The regulators say they wrestled with the term privilege, considering farmers’ exclusion, but what you call it is less important than the practical ramifications.
Currently, there are many instances where farmers give up the right to save their own seed. In many closed loop production systems, there’s a requirement for producers to use certified seed and to sell all of the production back to the company. No seed can be retained.
Farmers judge the merit of these contracts and don’t get hung up on saving seed if the overall opportunity is to their liking.
With canola, virtually no one is interested in saving their own seed. With hybrid seed, many of the benefits are lost in subsequent generations. Besides, the seed treatments used for canola are not approved for on-farm application.
There are lots of complaints over the price of canola seed, but the crop dominates Western Canada’s acreage because it typically generates some of the best returns.
On the cereal grains, we’re used to most of the varieties coming from public breeding programs. Producers buy certified seed when they want to try a new variety, but after that they usually save their own seed from one year to the next.
The federal government is withdrawing from variety development on many of the major crops. Private companies are investing to fill the void and they say the improvements to breeders’ rights will increase investment.
Will the new legislation actually lesson the ability of producers to save their own seed on the crops where the practice remains prevalent? The legislation by itself won’t, but subsequent regulations could eventually curtail farmers’ privilege.
Officials promise this would only happen after extensive consultation, but it’s certainly possible in the years ahead. This also opens the door to end point royalties on farmer saved seed.
As we move to UPOV’91 and beyond, there will be more varieties that will benefit farmers, but farmers will be paying for them. There’s no free lunch.
Canada is one of the last developed nations to move to UPOV’91 standards. It’s been talked about since the original legislation died on the order paper back in1999. While the modernization is long overdue, as farmers we’ll also need to modernize our attitude. The private sector won’t invest without a way to recoup their money.