Federal NDP MPs only delayed the “inevitable” by voting against the Agricultural Growth Act (Bill C-18) in late November, said an Alberta Barley spokesperson at a recent meeting in Lacombe.
“It might slow things down a bit, but nonetheless, we believe that it will be approved by Parliament in early 2015, after which work will need to be done on the regulations that go into making this bill a reality,” said Cole Christensen, communications manager for Alberta Barley.
And the regulations are where things could go sideways for producers hoping to save seed.
“We’ve been assured that the farmers’ privilege to save seed will be guaranteed within the legislation,” said Christensen. “However, we believe we will need to watch this carefully to ensure that nothing changes.
“Basically, it’s written into the legislation, but the actual enforceable rules come in during the regulation phase. They could add any kind of condition on it post-implementation.”
Once it comes into effect, Bill C-18 will amend the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and bring Canada in compliance with UPOV ’91, a convention created by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties that sets out the criteria for intellectual property (IP) rights for plant breeding. One of the conditions of the new trade deal with Europe is that UPOV ’91 is ratified in Canada.
“The federal government sees this not just as a step forward for plant breeders’ rights but as part of an overall IP strategy that will help Canada build relationships with key trading partners,” Christensen said.
“It’s a gateway to make trade agreements.”
And once Bill C-18 comes into effect, end-point royalties likely won’t be far behind.
“An amended plant breeders’ rights act wouldn’t necessarily result in the introduction of an end-point royalty, but it would allow the federal government to implement it at any time,” said Christensen.
As federal research funding shrinks and demand for improved varieties grows, end-point royalties seem like “the most logical system” for funding variety development, he said.
“Based on the federal government’s desire to change the current system, the future research in plant breeding in Canada is likely to be done primarily by private companies and, to a small extent, by publicly funded universities,” said Christensen.
“And the most viable way of funding these companies right now seems to be through an end-point royalty.”
One alternative is to “drastically increase the cost of new seed” — sometimes called the “canola model.” In that system, farmers assume the brunt of the risk, while plant breeders continue to be funded through the high cost of seed.
In the end-point royalty system, the cost of seed is “supposed to remain lower,” with a percentage of varietal seeds sales going back to breeders using systems created for checkoff collection, said Christensen. With end-point royalties, farmers and breeders share the risk — but on-farm input costs would go up.
“Farmers will pay more to put in the crop. That’s the reality of the system,” said Christensen.
Regardless of which funding model is used for ongoing variety development, it’s vital that the decision isn’t made solely by “nine guys in a board room in Calgary,” he said.
“No matter how you look at it, farmers will be paying for it,” he said. “No matter what model is chosen, farmer money invested in farmer-funded research needs to be directed and controlled by farmers.”