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Canada: Seed Sector Review report pushes for changes

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Thursday, May 13, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Most farmers will not be familiar with the Seed Sector Review that issued its final report last week. The review looked at the entire production and regulatory system for the seeds farmers plant. It did not attempt to involve farmers and farm groups in the discussions, other than to post a couple of internet surveys that received little response. Rather, the discussion was aimed at seed growers, plant breeders and private companies involved in the seed business.

Because the results of the review will impact farmers, both directly and indirectly, it is too bad that farm organizations, other than the Grain Growers of Canada, were not involved. The GGC, because of their philosophical perspective, bring only one set of opinions to bear on the issues. Nor does the GGC represent many farmers in western Canada. Western member groups consist of the small Alberta-based Western Barley Growers, the Alberta Barley Commission (appointed by the Alberta government), and the Canadian Canola Growers. The review had scant participation from Saskatchewan, thought the province plants 56 percent of the wheat acres in Canada, 50 percent of canola, 75 percent of peas, 99 percent of lentils, 70 percent of flax and so on.

The review seemed based on several premises: the idea that rules are outdated and preventing "innovation"; that investment in research is not sufficient and bound to get worse unless we change the rules; and that more money for all this has to come from farmers through the seed system. The final report put forward an odd view of agriculture when it claimed that "in today's modern economy, large corporate farms are the order of the day."

The report is a lot to wade through. The language is bureaucratic and full of jargon and not at all accessible to the average farmer. However the issues are important, and if the average farmer will not read the report, farm groups should take a leadership role in looking at it.

Several themes emerge strongly. One is the desire to move away from Kernel Visual Distinguishability in wheat. The report claims this is hampering plant breeding. However, it recognizes that no system is in place to replace KVD yet.

Another theme is the idea that the current system does not sufficiently reward plant breeders and hence is not fostering enough innovation. In truth though, most plant breeding is still done in the public sector, despite dire warnings about the end of public breeding. Only in canola is private breeding significant. While public money for breeding programs like those at universities and government research stations has diminished, farmers have picked up much of the slack through checkoffs.

The report also promoted the idea that merit assessment should not play such a major role in seed variety registration. Merit assessment refers to the principle that new varieties should be better than old ones, or at least as good as them. The rationale for doing away with it is poorly explained. It might be good for companies, since they could more easily register anything, but farmers would be much the poorer for it.

The report is also concerned greatly with the "need" to increase the use of certified seed. This is seen as the vehicle for getting more money into the hands of seed growers, seed companies and seed breeders. (Money that would come from farmers, I might add.) The report claims that more use of certified seed would mean "more uniform and higher yielding crops, increased traceability and decreased liability concerns, and improved intellectual property protection (and royalty collection)."

The report presents no evidence to support these assertions, and few farmers believe the claim of higher yields because of certified seed. The report laments that for wheat and barley in western Canada, "the percentage of acreage planted with pedigreed seed is low" because they "are self-pollinated and therefore they lend themselves to farmers saving seed."

The fact farmers can save seed from these crops represents a tremendous benefit. In 2001, Saskatchewan farmers planted 15 million of Canada's 26 million acres of wheat. If 90% of these acres were planted with farm saved seed, (today's CWB estimated price is $4.25 per bushel net to the farmer, compared to a certified seed price of $7 per bushel for Barrie) farmers kept nearly $47 million dollars in their pockets, compared to buying certified seed. That is a saving of almost $1,400 per farm for the 33,000 Saskatchewan farms that grew wheat.

The seed sector review raises many issues, some real, some contrived. Simplistically, farmers need research to provide better varieties and they need access to reasonably priced seed. For the second part, there are lots of seed growers to multiply and sell seed, and they seem mostly to be doing okay. For the first part, farmers have to choose if they want to control research, most of which they fund through checkoffs or if they want to turn their money and the control over to others. When you cut through all the verbiage, this is what it comes down to.

The Saskatchewan Pulse Growers provide a successful model. They use a grower checkoff to fund research at the University of Saskatchewan. It has turned out dozens of successful varieties. The Pulse Growers do not seek Plant Breeders Rights protection of these. Farmers benefit, farmers remain in control. Cereal growers could stand to take a lesson from this.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax