by Christopher Kelly-Bisson

Katie Ward of the National Farmers’ Union speaks at a protest against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement in Ottawa on Sept. 26.  Photo: Sam Heaton
Katie Ward of the National Farmers’ Union speaks at a protest against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement in Ottawa on Sept. 26. Photo: Sam Heaton

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s omnibus Agricultural Growth Act (Bill C-18) is currently before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. If passed, this bill will threaten the ability of Canadian farmers to save their own seed.

Part of the bill amends the Federal Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, which would ratify provisions from the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991 convention, giving multinational seed companies greater legal powers to enforce their ownership over non-patented seed varieties in Canada.

The bill comes amid action from the Harper government to weaken Canadian agricultural regulation and sovereignty in order to secure free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

The movement by the Harper government towards export-oriented, large-scale agribusiness will ultimately place control of Canada’s food systems in the hands of multinational corporations and away from the needs of farmers and consumers.

Ritz introduced Bill C-18 last year on Dec. 9 and it passed second reading on June 17. The bill is currently under review from the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. The plant breeders’ rights portion of the bill addresses recommendations by the Seed Sector Review – a group of lobby organizations representing the interests of multinational seed corporations and large-scale grain producers – to ratify the 1991 changes to UPOV. Canada is among the 73 states party to the convention, but it has not ratified any revisions since the previous UPOV ’78.

Ritz said the proposed changes “will encourage increased plant breeding investment here in Canada and encourage foreign breeders to sell their varieties to our farmers.”

The bill amends the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act to change the definition of “plant breeders” to include large multinational seed corporations. Such corporations are then permitted to claim “plant breeders’ rights” and charge “end-point-royalties” over any non-patented seed varieties that farmers save and stock from their harvest. Corporations are therefore permitted the right to claim ownership and royalties over any common seed varieties if they have not been previously commercialized in Canada.

Food Secure Canada has noted that 75 per cent of seed sold in Canada is controlled by 10 companies, most of which require farmers to purchase seed every year.

Ritz made his intentions to further strengthen this relationship clear when he introduced the bill. “Should you decide to save seed from crop that you grow,” he said,  “you have the ability to do that and, again, just pay the royalty on the end when you sell it out.”

The bill includes UPOV 1991’s provisions, permitting farmers to save and treat their own seed, but has omitted any mention of rights for farmers to stock it if they do not pay a royalty. Farmers could therefore be sued if they store seed that they have harvested for future planting or sale if it is protected by a corporation’s plant breeders’ rights.

The bill also changes the term length of plant breeders’ rights from 17 to 20 years and also allows corporations to withdraw a plant variety from the market whenever they desire.  This means they could withdraw a grain variety near the end of its 20-year term before it becomes common domain, and introduce a similar new plant breed for another 20-year term.

Bill C-18 represents a legal framework that will see multinational seed corporations and the Federal Government collaborating to pressure Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sector towards an industrial-scale, export-oriented model through the protection of monopolies and penalties to smaller-scale producers.

Unsurprisingly, the provisions of UPOV ’91 are a precondition for any trade agreements with the United States and it is no coincidence that the timing of the bill comes as negotiations of the TPP are drawing to a conclusion.

It is clear the Harper government is intent upon bringing agricultural production in Canada under increasing market control. The desire for market-based agricultural production poses inherent challenges. Seeds, for instance, do not lend themselves readily to property rights since they transform and spread prolifically.

However, it is such legal frameworks that permit corporations to appropriate common, abundant, and uncontrollable aspects of nature to be brought under the command of multinational corporations, markets, and state institutions.

The semantic shift of the definitions of “plant breeders” and “plant breeders’ rights” embodied in Bill C-18 is in fact historically quite violent when one considers that the initial intent of such provisions in the original UPOV ’72 was to give Indigenous farmers the ability to profit from the commercialization of their own common seed stock that they have used since time immemorial.

The National Farmers Union has been advocating against the bill before it was introduced in the House of Commons, and Food Secure Canada is scheduled to testify against the bill on Oct. 23. The Committee is currently on break, but is scheduled to resume on Oct. 20 and conclude before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, many farmers across Canada are eking out a living feeding Canadians. Soon enough the characteristic of Canada’s food producers may no longer resemble the bucolic family farm the Harper government isleading the public to believe they are trying to help. Rather, the conventional farm owner will be sitting in a corporate boardroom on Bay Street.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 7, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2014).