How corporate rights protections are threatening farmers' right to seed

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As I write, spring seeding on farms across the country is well underway.

I love this time of year. As a kid growing up on the Prairies, March, April and May were always a special time. While the kids played in the dwindling puddles of mud and water, farmers were monitoring soil conditions, readying machinery and checking on their store of seed grains.

On the surface, things look much the same at this time of year on farms across the country.

But what is actually happening to the very basics of farm operations is much more insidious.

It actually feels a bit like sci-fi once you reach below the surface.

While people are mobilized these days on issues of climate change, food safety and increasingly, on genetically modified foods, pesticides and insecticides, many are still not thinking much about seed.

But, we should be. Seed is where it all begins, and without the right to seed, farmers and farm communities everywhere are at risk. So is the food source of all urbanites.

By signing onto international trade agreements and corporate conventions, Canadians, via their governments, are increasingly giving up control of seed stock to multinational conglomerates, most of them involved in the pharmaceutical industry. Several international agreements threaten Canadian farmers' access to seed. Agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Canada's Liberal government recently signed in principle, and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), all threaten a democratically controlled food system.

The UPOV is an industry-led intergovernmental organization that encourages governments to adopt its model laws on plant breeding. UPOV's model seed laws are essentially clauses with no legal stature that have been written by the seed conglomerates to facilitate countries' adoption of legal language to standardize national laws and international agreements. The Harper government included UPOV'91 clauses in its omnibus agricultural legislation, Bill C-18, passed in February of 2015. Several other countries around the globe have done the same.

Back in 1991, the Canadian government passed the first Canadian Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR) legislation. Farmers and their advocates had warned and campaigned against PBR for decades. This early intellectual property legislation, based on UPOV'78 model laws, seems rather tame compared to recent amendments enshrined in Bill C-18 affecting agriculture and farmers. At least under UPOV'78, farmers could store and save seed for the next crop year, and exchange seed with other farmers.

Under Bill C-18, Canadian farmers have been granted the "privilege" to store seed from one year to the next; they no longer have the "right" as farmers to do so. The Harper government updated Plant Breeders' Rights legislation to support UPOV'91, a form of seed copyright, if you will. That move launched Canadian farmers into an international arena that is threatening farmers' right to seed in this country and globally. It is a problem that is already affecting many small farmers in developing countries.

Consider this: three corporations control more than half (55 per cent) of the world's commercial seed market, and a total 10 control over three-quarters (76 per cent). You will recognize Monsanto as a top player on this list, as well as Dupont and Syngenta. When it comes to pesticides, a mere six firms hold 75 per cent of the global agrochemical market. And only 10 pesticide companies control almost 95 per cent of the global market. Names like Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and Monsanto, among others, are on this list.

Keeping abreast of recent changes to agricultural law in this country is tough. The story is tangled, with Bill C-18 written to fit the requirements of commercial conventions such as UPOV'91 and international agreements such as CETA and the TPP.

The CETA is a free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, and the largest that Canada has signed since NAFTA. It was passed by the Harper Conservatives and awaits ratification in the EU. Intellectual property rights in CETA would permit precautionary seizure of farmers' assets on allegations of patent infringement.

The TPP is a free trade agreement between 12 countries operating in the Pacific zone. The Liberal government has signed the TPP, but as I write, the agreement has not been ratified and the federal government states that it is seeking input. The UPOV'91 model laws for Plant Breeders' Rights and gene-patented seed are prerequisite laws for countries joining the TPP.

In 2015, the federal Conservatives rammed through Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act. That omnibus legislation was opposed by many farmers and rural municipalities for many reasons, including that it did not respect farmers' right to seed and that it brings Plant Breeders' Rights laws in line with the even more restrictive UPOV'91 international convention.

UPOV'91 protects the patent or ownership of seed varieties, from cereals to grains. In order to be a signatory to the TPP, the Canadian government needed to bring its Plants Breeders' Rights and gene-patent seed legislation in line with UPOV'91. The new Agricultural Growth Act essentially makes it a "privilege" for farmers to stock seed for future use. Farmers can no longer exchange, give away or trade seed registered by a commercial developer such as Monsanto.

These days, family farmers across the country may well be asking: "What next?" Unlike their grandparents, today's farmers can no longer assume they will continue to have the right to store and save seed from one year to the next. Storing of "copyrighted" seed is now regulated as "privilege." It is no longer a centuries-old right.

Family farmers are likely also wondering whether the recently elected federal Liberal government will reverse the damage done by the Harper Conservatives and support farmers' right to seed. Or, will the federal government ratify the TPP and further empower global corporations, many of them pharmaceuticals, whose business is based on seed patents, genetically modified seed, pesticides, insecticides and other farm inputs? The March budget contained some new research moneys for agriculture, and while important, that move is only one small step toward ensuring food security and food sovereignty.

What's required is a complete overhaul of Canada's agriculture policy. The Liberals could start with ensuring seed is accessible to all.

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

Photo: Pierre Prakash, EU/ECHO/flickr

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