The reaction of farmers across Canada sent a clear message. Farmers want to keep the right to save seed. The problem is the cost of breeding and innovation continues to climb, public investment in Agriculture Research across Canada is retracting rapidly. The new IPOV-19 agreement that Canada has signed on allows for some access and free flow of seed technologies and innovations between participating countries (as I understand it) and that is a good thing for Canadian farmers. It also provides the opportunity for the Canadian Government to update legislation, regulations and processes and design a system that would collect royalties that are directed directly back to supporting plant breeding including our public breeders. This is where things get confusing
You see public breeding programs are a partnership between industry and government. Governments typically provide human resources, and infrastructure and some funding which was supposed to be matched by industry. So farmers pay check offs and some of that check off is geared at research and innovation, and some of that research and innovation budget goes to public plant breeding programs. There are other pools of public/industry money floating around that breeding programs apply to as well. However it is very difficult to trace exactly how much of the check off is going into breeding programs. A more direct way to support breeding programs is through the payment of royalties that go directly to the breeding program, and paying royalties on farm saved seed is a direct investment in our public breeding programs, and sends a clear message to government that these programs are important to farmers and should be protected.
Now commodity commissions and associations (I’ll call them Industry) also work for farmers, and are in the business of getting the most bang for their check off dollar. So naturally they negotiate to pay the least to get the most, and so since the government is invested in breeding they are stingy to invest. The government on the other hand uses the willingness of Industry to invest as an indicator of the value of the government investment. Low investment means its not important, so why continue to prop it up. Royalties paid back to the public breeding programs are also used to indicate how to focus limited public investment. So farmers save seed and decline to pay royalties gives a signal to government that investment in public breeding is not important.
Paying royalties on farm saved seed does change the on farm economics, but does it change it more than losing the public investment in breeding programs altogether? It may be the lessor of two evils. Take for example Canola, created in Canada to grow best in western Canadian climates, developed in a public program, and then sold out to private industry. No more public breeding programs supported by checkoffs has resulted in farmers paying 50 times more for canola seed than wheat to seed the same acres, and you are still paying checkoff. On the upside all of the Check off dollars paid to Canola can be focused on market access and extension rather than on plant breeding. The downside is private industry dictates how much you have to pay for breeding, and there is no farm saved seed. A trailing royalty system, regulated by government gives farmers and local government more influence on the price of royalties.
Meanwhile the Federal/Provincial/Territorial agriculture ministers are engaged in solving the problem of “market access” and “leveling the playing field” so that it is economical for multinational seed breeding companies to market their products in Canada. Right now our public breeding program and lack of trailing royalties has created a situation where it doesn’t pencil out for most farmers to purchase higher priced private industry seed, and our public varieties are top performers. The playing field is not level, but it is to the local farmers advantage, so do we want it level?
So what is the real issue that farmers are talking about when they want us to lobby to protect farm saved seed? Is it the joy of growing their own seed, or is it the economic advantage that public investment in breeding affords? Do you know anyone who gets their Canola seed from a local medium sized certified seed farm? So who really loses from this unlevel playing field, and who stands to gain? What is the real cost of “leveling the playing field” as the CFIA engagement implies is their mandate.
If you want to attempt to weigh in on the discussion, the CFIA has an online engagement open until March 15. The questions are really high level so prepare to be baffled. Don’t forget our medium sized local certified seed suppliers who lose big time with a “level playing field”, they won’t have access to current genetics at a reasonable price without the public breeding programs.