NFU raises flags about ‘sneaky’ omnibus bill

The National Farmers Union is raising red flags about Bill C-18, an omnibus bill that the government says brings Canada in line

The National Farmers Union is raising red flags about Bill C-18, an omnibus bill that the government says brings Canada in line with the international community regarding Plant Breeder Rights (PBR).

The bill, which has three main components, is “not in the public’s interest,” says NFU president Jan Slomp.

The first component of the bill is designed to cut red tape, Slomp explained. Instead of fertilizers, livestock, crops and seeds being inspected by Canadian specialists before being allowed entry into the country, the products will be allowed in if an approved agency in the home country has approved it, Slomp explained.

If C-18 passes, genetically modified seeds, feed and drugs can make its way into Canada, Slomp explained.

“We kept bovine growth hormones out in the 90s,” he said. “But we couldn’t under C-18 (because they’d be approved in other countries).”

“We need to strive for better than that,” he said.

Another part of the bill will allow for advance payment given to farmers for crops in the bin, but a change in the language means that companies may be able to take advantage of the program.

This would open the door for international companies, allowing them to move in and make a move on struggling Canadian farmers, Slomp argued.

It’s the last point that has Slomp the most worried, however, and that’s the part that brings Canada in line with UPOV ‘91.

The International Union for the Protection of new varieties of plants (UPOV) is an organization that seeks to protect the rights of plant breeders, who engineer new seed types that are more resistant to disease and better acclimated to the different climates in which the plants are grown. Since the companies do the research and development, they seek to see a return on their investment through charging a royalty on seeds – sort of like a patent, but not quite, Slomp said.

The change would see these companies charge their royalties at the end of the process rather than at the beginning, and this penalizes Canadians who clean their own seed, he said.

Currently, farmers pay the royalty on the seed only, but the change would see the royalty paid at the end of the season when the crop is brought to market, either at the elevator or at the port.

If the farmer reserves any seed and then seeds the next year, he’ll have to say what type of seed it is and pay the royalty again, although since it’s second generation seed, the royalty would not be as much as the first generation.

This violates the farmer’s right to clean their own seed, Slomp maintains.

“We need to be very worried about the changes,” Slomp said. “Under UPOV ‘91, farmers lose the right to save seed to use the next year. Instead, the PBR allows the privilege of using seed.”

His concern was that since the language has changed from “right” to “privilege,” the privileges can be revoked or changed without a government order.

The plant breeder, whether it’s Monsanto, Dow, Baier or any other company, can make changes to the privilege without input from the farmers.

Slomp is also worried that C-18 will affect the sustainability of the seed industry’s future, since it limits the variety of seed.

An illness, climate issue, or pest could come along and totally decimate a seed type that is unprepared for such a factor.

The end point royalty system introduced by the bill means the farmer would have to pay the royalties to the seed breeder at the end of the season, and if they cannot, it means the seed breeder may have the legal right to claim machinery and other immovable assets from the farmer.

“We’re getting nothing for giving a lot,” Slomp said.

Crowfoot MP Kevin Sorenson, who represents Stettler, said the NFU is simply trying to create fear from a good news story.

“The NFU is a far-left group that’s opposed to anything that involves changes,” Sorenson said, dismissing the group’s concerns. “Several groups are supporting C-18, including Partners in Innovation, Canadian Farmers’ Association and Grain Growers of Canada, to name a few.

“Amendments in UPOV ‘91 made is possible to let farmers save seed,” Sorenson said, noting that the intellectual rights to the seeds would have prevented saving seed without the structures set in UPOV ‘91.

As for the “right” to save seed versus the “privilege,” Sorenson said there is nothing in writing now about a right, and that C-18 enshrines the privilege where before there was nothing to allow for the saving of seed.

“The bill was brought forward to bring Canada in line with other countries,” Sorenson said. “It creates policies that harmonize with other farming countries.”

Sorenson, who is himself a farmer, said he had a hard time understanding why the NFU is so against C-18.

“I find it odd,” he said. “All these other groups are in support of C-18. They are not finding the same issues the NFU is finding.”

He likened the NFU’s attack on Bill C-18 to fearmongering, and said the whole point of the seed portion of C-18 is to protect plant breeders and farmers alike. The restrictions simply stop farmers from mass producing and selling seed. It doesn’t prevent trading seeds between farmers, for example.

Sorenson did note that the end-point royalties system as described by Slomp was correct, but noted that farmers will not pay as high a royalty on second-generation seeds.

“UPOV ‘91 will bring in more investment to the industry,” he said.

He noted that to date, his office has only received a handful of complaints and concerns about Bill C-18, something he said would be higher if farmers were truly concerned about the issue.

“We’ve done a fair bit of consultation with farmers and stakeholders in the industry,” Sorenson said. “If there was anything that would hurt farmers, the big organizations would have stepped up and said so.”

Sorenson said he already signs contracts that prevent him from reselling the seed he harvests from seed he buys, and expects other farmers to sign similar contracts, so the “right” to save seed isn’t the target of the bill, but rather the reselling of cleaned seed.

“I think this is a good news story, and the response so far has been very good,” he said.