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Farmers little aware of seed sector review

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Monday, March 15, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- It hasn't been a big secret, or anything like that, but it isn't likely the average Canadian farmer has heard much about the Seed Sector Review, now nearly complete. The 4500 pedigree seed growers in Canada and the 200 companies from across Canada that belong to the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) are more likely to know about the review, since there has been coverage in their trade magazines. There is also a website, seedsectorreview.com, which has notes from the first three meetings that were held.

The review was jointly conceived by the CSTA, the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA), the Canadian Seed Institute (CSI) and the Grain Growers of Canada (GGC). Funding came largely from the federal government, and was estimated at over one million dollars.

The review describes itself in vague terms as follows: "The primary objective of the Seed Sector Review is to conduct an industry-wide assessment of the Canadian seed sector and Canada's seed regulatory environment in the global context. The project aims to contribute to the development of a common understanding among key stakeholders in the Canadian seed sector (including government) of the nature of the sector, the challenges facing it, and the options for facilitating constructive change within it; and to facilitate more effective industry participation in the process of an on-going regulatory adjustment and reform as well as priorities for regulatory change to support the strategic direction identified for the sector."

That's a tough one to wade through, but the intent of the review appears to be to promote changes to the regulations governing the production and use of seeds. Implicit in the discussions are several ideas: the notion that rules are outdated and preventing "innovation"; that investment in research is not sufficient and bound to get worse unless we change the rules; and that more money for all this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.

It is the latter part that should have farmers worried. Also, though the review is almost over, farmers might have been concerned at the constitution of the group that may hold much power over them. While seed growers and organizations were obviously well represented, the list of participants at the meeting is, well, interesting. Those who will be most affected by the outcome of the review, the farmers who plant the seeds, seem to have been represented by the Grain Growers of Canada. The GGC membership includes the small Western Barley Growers Association, the Canadian Canola Growers, three groups from Ontario, one from Atlantic Canada, one from B.C., and still lists the temporarily-dead Western Canadian Wheat Growers. It also includes the Alberta Barley Commission, appointed by the Alberta government.

Noticeably absent from the list of participants at the review's first three meetings is representation from Saskatchewan. Of the two dozen plus at the first two meetings, the only names listing a Saskatchewan base are that of Barry Reisner, president of the CSGA, and a rep from a seed company. Manitoba's and Alberta's Agriculture Departments also make the cut, but Saskatchewan's was not invited to attend the meetings. Nor, it appears, was the CWB, the largest single marketer of wheat and barley in the world.

Saskatchewan's poor representation is unfortunate. This 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. Farmers here stand to be more affected by changes to seed regulations than anywhere in Canada.

The result of much of what the review is doing seems to hold the promise that farmers will pay more to plant seed, and be less able to save their own. There is talk of limiting sales of common seed, tying crop insurance or its premiums to the use of certified seed, deducting royalties at the elevator as farmers deliver grain and basing CWB contract programs on certified seed.

A telling line from the meeting notes says "Some participants felt that it should be permissible to allow farmers to save enough seed to plant on their own property."

The review is expected to produce its final report later this month. The federal government, which had a strong presence on the committee, will be pushed to move in the directions the report advocates. Farmers should study this one very carefully.

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