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Canada: Monsanto victory plants seed of privatization

(Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service:
BROOKLIN, Canada - Canadian farmers' traditional right to save seeds is being threatened by proposals to collect royalties on virtually all such seeds following agribusiness giant Monsanto's victory over grower Percy Schmeiser.

A recent review of Canada's entire production and regulatory system for the seeds farmers plant looked at ways to collect payments (royalties) on seeds the growers save from their own crops, to link crop insurance to the use of purchased certified seeds and to increase intellectual property protection for seed companies.

”It's a fundamental shift in agriculture to the privatization of seeds,” says Terry Pugh, executive secretary of Canada's National Farmer's Union (NFU). ”There are no benefits (in this) for farmers.”

Formally known as the Seed Sector Review, Pugh described the process as an industry-driven restructuring of Canada's seed production system. Companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dupont, which dominate Canada's seed industry, are pushing for ”deregulation” and increased profitability, he added in an interview.

The essence of the review is to turn growers into consumers of seed from producers of seed. ”Farmers can't believe this is happening,” added Pugh.

Various regulations in Canada's laws have long protected farmers from unscrupulous seed sellers by requiring that new varieties of wheat and other grains pass a merit test. Before they could be sold to farmers their makers had to prove they offered better yields, improved disease resistance or agronomic performance.

Until the 1990s most of the research into new seed varieties was done either by government researchers or publicly funded university plant breeders. To encourage corporate seed research, Canada created the Plant Breeders Rights Act (PBR) in 1990.

Under the PBR when farmers bought certified (high quality) seed from a company they could save seed from their crop for their own use the following year but could not sell it to anyone else. This seed saving for a farmer's own use could continue indefinitely but growers were technically prohibited from selling it.

In fact, after several years most farmers felt free to sell what they felt had become ”common” seed. And seed companies did not particularly object as long as farmers did not try and pass off what they felt was lower-quality or impure seed as one of their registered varieties.

That is all about to change as Canada's federal agricultural department appears more interested in protecting the profits of seed companies than farmers, says Paul Beingessner, a third-generation grain and livestock farmer near Truax in the province of Saskatchewan.

”There's lots of seed trading among farmers here. We rarely buy certified seed for cereals. It's rarely better seed and just not necessary,” Beingessner said in an interview.

If Saskatchewan spring wheat growers had to buy certified seed each year, it would increase their costs by an average of 1,400 Canadian dollars (1,110 U.S. dollars) per farm, he calculates. He estimates that five percent of all wheat and barley growers in the province, the heart of Canada's ”bread basket,” buy new seed.

The proposals in the Seed Sector Review are an attempt to force more farmers to buy certified seed from the seed companies, says Beingessner. ”It's a money grab, pure and simple.”

The royalty provisions would also mean that farmers would one day have to pay royalties on traded seed.

Bill Leask, executive director of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, one of four groups that initiated the review, would hardly use those words but feels those who bring new varieties to market should be rewarded for their efforts.

”It costs between one and two million dollars to create a new variety of seed,” Leask said in an interview. The CSTA says it has 577 million dollars in sales annually.

While he acknowledges that new varieties are only possible because of the breeding efforts of farmers over the past millennia, Leask argues ”today's seeds are nothing like they were then, and are long ways from the seeds of 50 years ago.”

The review's final recommendations will soon be put before the government but they do not include a royalty provision for saved seeds, Leask says. ”The NFU is completely wrong about this. There are no royalty provisions in Canada.”

However, the seed industry does think royalties have merit and would like to look at such a proposal in the future, he adds.

Although the Seed Sector Review began in 2003, it is consistent with a push for corporate control of seed, best illustrated in Monsanto's May 2004 Supreme Court victory over Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, both Pugh and Beingessner believe.

Monsanto alleged that Schmeiser illegally saved its genetically engineered ”Roundup Ready” canola (oilseed rape) in 1997, after the firm obtained plants from his farm the following year that contained its patented genetics.

Throughout six years of litigation, Schmeiser steadfastly maintained his fields were contaminated by pollen from a neighbour's Roundup Ready canola fields and by seeds that blew off trucks on their way to a nearby processing plant.

Despite widespread evidence of contamination on many other farms, the Supreme Court determined the farmer infringed on Monsanto's legal rights under Canada's Patent Act by 'using' the company's patented gene when he harvested and sold his crop.

That decision remains highly controversial.

Recently Rene Van Acker, a University of Manitoba agricultural expert, wrote to tell the Supreme Court that seed samples from Schmeiser's contested 1997 crop that he tested were not 95-98 per cent Roundup Ready canola, as Monsanto claimed. Rather, the amount of Roundup Ready canola in the crop varied between three to 67 percent, depending on the sample tested.

Other research has shown that Roundup Ready canola has spread widely, and now shows up in ditches, schoolyards and city lots. Even the purest, certified non-genetically engineered canola now contains up to 4.9 per cent Roundup Ready content, Van Acker writes.

Moreover, the researcher says he cannot find any documents that substantiate Monsanto's claim that Schmeiser's crop was 95 percent contaminated.

At the heart of the debate over ownership of seeds is the principle of a farmer's right to save seeds. The Schmeiser case and the recommendations of the Seed Sector Review are completely contradictory to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which came into force this summer, says Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, a Canadian non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was heavily involved in the treaty negotiations.

”The treaty is very strong on farmer seed saving. Canada was the first country to ratify the treaty,” Mooney told IPS.

In Leask's view the treaty is all about protecting the rights of indigenous people in developing countries, who have saved seeds for centuries. In Canada there is no legal right of farmers to save seed, he argues.

The review recommends the government acknowledge farmers' ”privilege” to save seed for their own holdings, an approach Leask supports. ”I don't think farmers ought to have a legal right to save seeds,” he adds.