Depending on whom you listen to, the federal government's decision to embrace a 22-year-old international treaty expanding plant breeders' rights will either put Canadian farmers on the road to prosperity, or be the end of farming as we know it.
It is entirely possible it will contribute to both.
Canada's adoption of UPOV 91, as it is known, is designed to attract more private sector investment in plant breeding, which is seen as critical to offering the yield improvements Canadian farmers will need if they are to maintain their competitive edge in international markets. But it also continues the erosion of farmers' control over their seed supply.
The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) negotiated its first international treaty on plant breeders' rights, a form of copyright protection on seeds, in 1961. The agreement was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991.
While the Canadian government has been a member of the UPOV since 1991, it only last week introduced legislation that would bring Canada's laws into full compliance with those 1991 revisions.
Under the provisions, seed breeders will have more flexibility on where in the value chain seed royalties are collected. Right now, farmers pay up front when they buy their seed, which means seed developers get their share whether or not the farmer's crop makes it to harvest.
Under the new provisions, royalties could be collected when the farmer delivers the harvested crop for sale, which on one hand, assigns the royalty to full production instead of solely on the seed, but on the other, could spare the farmer from paying if the crop fails.
UPOV 91 also extends the breeder's rights beyond the farm gate, meaning seed cleaners and processors could be held accountable if they take in seed from someone who is not authorized to harvest or sell it.
Many farm groups and the seed trade welcomed the federal announcement, saying improving the ability of seed breeders to recoup their investments in research and development through royalties will make investing in seed more attractive.
"Canadian farmers need access to new seed varieties in order to remain competitive and to feed a hungry world," said Gary Stanford, president of Grain Growers of Canada in a release. "Close to 90 per cent of innovation investment is currently in just three crops which have some intellectual property protection. This legislation is needed to protect plant breeders' work on seed traits and it will encourage more research in cereals and in plant breeding in general."
Proponents say Canada is one of only two developed country UPOV members whose haven't yet adopted the UPOV 91 provisions, which puts Canadian seed breeders at a competitive disadvantage to breeders in other parts of the world.
But the National Farmers' Union is dead set against it, saying it will mean the end of farmers' ability to save seed from one year's harvest for replanting the next.
While the farmers' "privilege" to save seed is protected under plant breeders' rights is enshrined in existing plant breeders' rights legislation, the reality is, for most major crops, farmers have already signed their privileges away through contracts with the seed developers --and done so willingly.
In order to get access to the newest varieties, farmers agree to buy fresh seed every year. As well, the highest-yielding varieties for major commodity crops such as canola or corn nowadays are hybrids. They only produce one crop before reverting to the parental lines -- which usually aren't very productive.
Cereals, mainly wheat, are among the few crops for which farmers continue to save and reuse seed from the previous year's crop. But as new varieties emerge from the private sector, you can expect the seed developers will be locking them up through contracts as well.
Farmers have deemed the benefits through improved genetics as outweighing the costs, at least so far. But as the public sector's investment in variety development continues to shrink, it's becoming clear, sooner rather than later, alternative options will be slim to non-existent.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: