Federal UPOV '91 agenda closes Cereal Research Centre

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Photo: flickr/"Grain fields" by Richard Taylor

The Cereal Research Centre (CRC) is being closed this month, marking the end of nearly a century of public plant breeding in Winnipeg. It is another sorry landmark on the Harper government's systematic path of destruction through Canada's public agriculture institutions.

Publicly funded plant breeding at the CRC, along with other Agriculture Canada research stations and several Canadian universities, has produced most of Canada's cereal crop varieties, which are the foundation for our multi-billion dollar grain industry. According to Industry Canada, approximately 50 per cent of wheat and oat acreage in Canada is seeded to varieties developed at the CRC -- varieties that represent a farm-gate value of close to $2.5 billion.

The federal government is not only closing the CRC, but is winding down all public funding for spring wheat plant breeding to make way for private sector investment. Agriculture Canada will allow scientists to continue work already in progress, but will not support new breeding, nor allow the current work to proceed to the final stage of producing the actual varieties that farmers can buy. The CRC's top-notch spring wheat team has been broken up, and only a handful of Agriculture Canada wheat breeders remain at the Brandon, Swift Current and Lethbridge research stations.

At a 2013 meeting of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Director General Stephen Morgan Jones laid out the federal government's vision: AAFC would "vacate" variety finishing; germplasm developed by AAFC scientists would be sold to private companies; intellectual property rights rules would be redrawn to benefit private breeders; and variety registration rules would be revisited.

Yet public plant breeding gives a very high return on investment. Studies by University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Dr. Richard Gray show that every dollar invested in cereals breeding returns at least $20, and often more. When the federal government invests $30 million annually in wheat breeding it creates at least $600 million in value that is distributed among farmers in the form of better crops, providing income to pay wages, taxes and check-offs for additional research, while supporting agriculture-related businesses in rural communities and helping processors and consumers who benefit from better wheat.

When private companies invest, however, most of these high returns go to private shareholders -- a majority being wealthy non-Canadians. In the case of genetically modified canola, soy and corn, gene patents, hybridization and contracts ensure companies can hold onto most, if not all of the returns by forcing farmers to buy expensive new seed each year.

Dr. Gray's research not only shows high returns to investment in plant breeding, but also documents that when private seed companies are involved (as is the case in canola) they reinvest only a small portion of their returns into new research. Research by Dr. R. J. Graf shows that private breeding is also less economically efficient -- a comparable yield increase was achieved in wheat for a $25 million annual public investment but required $80 million private dollars in canola breeding.

Whether the federal government has decided to bring in UPOV '91 via Bill C-18 in spite of -- or because of -- this disparity in how returns to plant breeding are distributed, it will guarantee the likes of Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dow a massive new revenue stream. By de-funding and vacating public spring wheat breeding, the federal government is handing these companies an incredibly lucrative new source of profits. 

Under this new funding policy and the UPOV '91 Plant Breeders Regime that underpins it, Canadian grain farmers not only lose the future varieties that the CRC would have developed, but will pay higher seed prices and increased royalties, whether on the purchase of new seed or as end point royalties on crops harvested from farm-saved seed. If changes to variety registration rules proposed in May 2013 are adopted, companies will be able to deregister older varieties that no longer provide them with royalties, forcing farmers to choose among fewer and more expensive varieties.

When the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, the CRC's predecessor, was established in 1925, Prairie farmers were fighting for a fair share against the oligopolies of the banks, railways and grain companies, and we eventually built the Canadian Wheat Board as a counterweight with power to act in the farmers' interest. Today, in the shadow of the economic disaster the Conservative government unleashed by tearing down the CWB, it is now adding insult to injury by creating a new seed oligopoly.

 

Glenn Tait is a National Farmers Union board member. He farms grain and cattle on his family farm near Meota, SK.

This piece originally appeared on National Farmers Union and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/"Grain fields" by Richard Taylor

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.