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Plant breeding issues heat up

by Paul Beingessner
Saskatchewan farmer and writer

(Tuesday, June 3, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Until fairly recently, Canadian farmers mostly grew crop varieties that were developed by public plant breeding programs at Canadian universities and government research stations. The goal of these programs was to produce varieties suited to the unique physical climate and agronomic conditions of the particular region of Canada. For example, many varieties of crops that work well in other parts of the world are not suited to the very short growing season in the Canadian prairies. Because of this, early efforts at plant breeding were aimed at developing short season varieties of the major cereal crops.

Of course, there are many other factors, like diseases and insect pests, which provide ample work for ongoing plant breeding. Sawfly resistant wheats and resistance to smut and rust are just two examples of the ongoing benefits of plant breeding.

For nearly a century, this was the way it was. Public money was used to create new varieties. This was viewed as a public good since it allowed agriculture to progress and provide benefits to the economy and the whole population. The results of this system, the new plant varieties, were owned by no one, and hence by everyone, and were available to anyone wishing to grow them. Farmers themselves multiplied the new varieties and saved seed for each successive planting.

This all began to change a couple of decades ago when governments in many developed countries began to look for ways to turn plant breeding into a profitable business for private companies. In Canada, as elsewhere, there appeared to be two reasons for this. The official one was that by allowing and encouraging private companies to get into the plant breeding game, there would be a large increase in money devoted to plant breeding and, in the end, more and better varieties of crops available to farmers. Everyone would win.

The unofficial reason seemed to be that governments wanted to shed the responsibility and financial burden of public plant breeding, and turn it into a profit center for transnational seed companies.

To accomplish this, the government in Canada passed Plant Breeders Rights legislation. From that point on, new varieties would not be owned by the public, but would be privately held. Farmers' rights to save seed from these varieties began to erode.

Another result of the government's scaling back of plant breeding resources was the increasing demands placed on farmers to fund research. Check-offs were introduced to provide money for plant breeding efforts. Of course, the benefits from having superior crop varieties go far beyond the farmer's gate. By making agriculture stronger, better varieties benefit everyone in the marketing and processing chain. Nevertheless, it was farmers who had to pick up the tab.

Changes to the plant variety registration system also helped this transition. At one time, a new plant variety had to be superior in some respect to other registered varieties. In other words, a new variety could not be registered unless it brought some benefit not yet available. A subtle but extremely important change now allows varieties to be registered if they are as good as existing varieties. Somehow, this move was supposed to increase options for farmers.

The result has been a proliferation of new crop varieties, many indistinguishable from each other except by their names. Farmers are left with few reference points, other than company propaganda, to help them figure out which ones really are better.

Even some varieties produced with farmers' money via the check-offs have come to be privately owned. Farmers get to pay again and again. One group that has resisted this is the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers. Collecting and doling out a significant amount of check-off money for research, the Pulse Growers made a decision not to pursue Plant Breeders Rights for these new varieties. It was reasoned that since farmers paid for them once through the check-off, they should not have to pay again.

While the Pulse Growers' decision is a bright spot of reason, the rest of the plant breeding scene in a murky sea for farmers. Companies have learned to go beyond the rights granted by Plant Breeders Rights legislation, which allowed farmers to save their own seed. By using contracts, rights holders are forcing farmers to pay a fee to use their own seed.

Farmers have expressed the very real fear that before long, all crop varieties will be subject to such requirements. Varieties, most of them built upon the foundation of public breeding, will be simply another profit center of chemical and seed companies. It will be one more way to squeeze all but the slimmest of margins out of the farmer.

(c) Paul Beingessner : (306) 868-4734 phone, 868-2009 fax, beingessner@sasktel.net

Related item:

Washington State wheat breeder won't sow Clearfield seed, Borlaug warns against privatization of public breeding; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1665