Who owns seed and what are the alternatives?

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Across many cities in Canada, eaters and producers -- a.k.a. urban dwellers and farmers -- have come together in recent weeks during Seedy Saturdays. These annual seed events are creating bonds between farmers and urban gardeners, eager to share heirloom seeds and special seed varieties. These events also confirm the right to store, share and sell seed, recognizing that for centuries, and until recently, all seed has been recognized as part of the public domain, to be stewarded by farmers and gardeners.

On the farm, usually starting in early January, grain producers look through seed catalogues, trying to locate the seed that might bring the best yield for the soil and climate conditions of their farm.

However, these days Canadian farmers are contending with increasingly strict commercial rights on the seeds they purchase. And there are fewer and fewer options in the public domain. Government funding of seed research by scientists working in public institutions such as universities has been drastically cut back over the years. New seed varieties in the public domain are increasingly scarce, forcing farmers to use privatized seed, and to pay royalties.

For example, the 2016 Saskatchewan Seed Catalogue includes 44 varieties of Red Spring Wheat, a hardy, high-protein wheat used in bread and baked goods. But of these 44 varieties, only four are in the public domain. A friend of mine who is an organic farmer in Saskatchewan says that increasingly, there is less choice in seed that is in the public domain or royalty free. Genetically modified seed patents are also on the rise, a worrisome trend for those committed to sustainable agriculture.

The price of seed has gone up more than seven times in the past 20 years. In 2011 total realized net farm income was a little more than $5.5 billion. That same year, Canadian farmers paid more than $1.8 million for commercial seed. The cost of seed is rising faster that the total of all other farm inputs. 

Plant Breeders' Rights, initially passed in Canada in 1991, gives so-called commercial seed developers (i.e. Monsanto and others) proprietorial rights over seed that they have bred. When this seed is sold to farmers, royalties are paid at the time of sale. Gene-patented seed, such as GMO Canola, use TUAs (technology use agreements) to ensure payment from farmers. Rather than royalties, TUAs are usually paid on a per-acre basis, and pay for use of GMO seed. For now, that seed is restricted to canola, but recently there has been word of GMO potatoes and apples coming to market, and campaigns are ongoing to block the entry of GMO alfalfa in Canada.

Monsanto sought approval for GMO wheat in the early 2000s, but stiff opposition from farmers, the public and even the Canadian Wheat Board, stopped that attempt. Monsanto is still testing GMO wheat on test plots in the United States and there are several reports of the wheat being found in some farmers' fields in both Oregon and Montana. Monsanto calls it sabotage. Others wonder about cross-contamination from test plots.

All of these issues have led to several calls for policy change. Among other key agricultural issues, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) Alternative Budget 2016 is calling on the federal government to increase funding for seed research in Canada in an effort to increase the number of public domain seed varieties that can be used by farmers.

While the federal budget released in March promises more money for research in plants and so-called genomics, details at this writing are sketchy at best. The budget makes no mention of reversing clauses of Bill C-18 that further restrict farmers' right to seed, and does not even use the term "Plant Breeders' Rights."

In response to Bill C-18, The National Farmers Union has drafted a new Seed Act for Farmers. The passage of such an act is also part of the recommendations of the CCPA's Alternative Federal Budget.

The fundamental principles of the Farmers Seed Act include:

"[t]he right of farmers to exchange and sell seed, including through farmer-owned organizations such as co-operatives, non-profit organizations and associations.

[t]he unrestricted right of farmers to grow, save and use seed for planting which cannot be negated by any contract. This right would be supported by the unrestricted right to clean seed, to store seed, to prepare seed for planting, including applying seed treatments, establishment of new seed cleaning plants, and unrestricted access to seed cleaning equipment and parts..."

The NFU's draft seed act notes that the United Nations International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which Canada signed in 2002, agrees not to limit any rights that farmers have to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed and propagating material, subject to national law.

Spring seeding is completed across the country... and Seedy Saturdays are done for this year as well. For now, gardeners in Canada are not prevented from exchanging or saving seed. But, strict commercial seed laws affecting farmers are beginning to home in on the urban garden as well. In Europe commercial breeders such as Monsanto are being granted licenses for natural seed varieties and there have been campaigns to stop the passage of seed laws that would prevent the saving or exchanging of copyrighted varieties. As in Europe, Canadian gardeners could well be next on the list.

What affects farmers at the farm gate, affects us all eventually.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her monthly column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Tim Hagen/flickr

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