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Seed trade tries to right the wrongs

Confusion, and which course to steer, problems.


November 14, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

6aFor many involved in the seed trade, clearing the myths that have arisen out
of a recent ad hoc partnership is one of the most daunting challenges since
the GMO issue first appeared on farming's radar in the mid-1990s. Many are asking
why it is so difficult to separate the truth from the well organized, well publicized
inaccuracies that are now making the rounds thanks to the National Farmers'
Union (NFU) and the United Church of Canada.

Although the problem is all too clear, the solutions are anything but, according
to Quentin Martin, current president of the Ontario Seed Growers' Association
and a grower from St. Jacobs, Ontario. Martin used the 2005 Select Seed Growers'
annual field day at the Elora research station to voice his objections to the
NFU and United Church of Canada's statements against Plant Breeders' Rights
(PBR) and its impact on saving seed. He told growers that while he was frustrated
by the lack of truth to statements made in the April 2005 issue of the United
Church Observer
, he confessed he was envious, if not impressed by their
ability to garner the attention of the mainstream media.

But hot on the heels of that attention comes the daunting challenge: How to
'write the wrong' and ensure perceptions about saving seed, as well as other
basic tenets of Plant Breeders' Rights and the Seed Sector Review are countered
with accurate details.

Part societal, part occupational
It is arguable that for the past 10 years, agriculture has suffered from the
media's want for sensation. It also can be suggested that growers do not always
make the best communicators. Mired somewhere in between is the need for truth
and accuracy. For Martin, that has to be the key: determining at what point
people will listen to a truth, made all the more complex by the initial presentation
of over-simplified misinformation.

"That's not how people, from let's say 'the outside', who have a bit of
an agenda come at these things," says Martin. Instead, he adds, they look
for an edge to attack and attach to. The subject of Plant Breeders' Rights,
along with the Seed Sector Review, offer those organizations a pair of easy
targets. "Especially if you're an organization that has a particular philosophy
that feeds on the mentality that everybody's out to get the farmer."

Martin concedes that the scope of this problem, like GMOs, requires constant
diligence, which is a challenge, given the nature of the grower's job as well
as agriculture's diversity. The quality that is so highly regarded actually
serves to hurt the industry with a 'divide and conquer' approach, making it
easier for special interest to attract attention. "Which still comes back
to then determining what's our responsibility in terms of trying to deliver
an understandable message that people will pick up on, that doesn't sound like
an objection or lip service coming out to defend the status quo," explains
Martin.

He refers to some groups that still subscribe to the corporate conspiracy in
agriculture. "Most people are convinced that any kind of multinational
corporation is a bad thing, that industry in general is suspicious and government
isn't much better. We have people who are very cynical and some of that is justified.
But when you have people trained to be totally cynical, it makes it very hard
to move forward."

First step: What is really broken?
Martin is quick to confide he has no silver bullet solution. But John Cowan
believes there is a two-part process that may lead to a greater good. A manager
with Hyland Seeds in Blenheim, Ontario, Cowan is also the current president
of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA). His approach is to assert the
facts behind the gross inconsistencies that have found their way into the mainstream
media.

"The other thing is, special interest groups can make a statement of philosophical
nature, then say, 'Prove that scientifically'," says Cowan, adding that
science cannot prove or disprove a negative statement. "When you're talking
philosophy and intermingling it with science, the two are almost different languages."

In a round-about fashion, Cowan advocates a short and long-term plan. In the
latter phase, he believes the agri-food industry must reach a point where everyone,
be it the grower, the elevator operator, the handler, the processor and the
retailer acknowledges they are all part of the same value-added chain. "We
need to say, 'Wait, we're in this together'," he says. "I cannot run
a seed company or an elevator company or grain handling company or an ag-chemical
company if farmers don't have a good income and a good livelihood. And farmers
have to recognize that those other companies deliver value, and they must be
willing to share or have benefit as well."

This 'circle of life' in agriculture can be delivered right to the consumer,
adds Cowan. The reality is, everyone has to perceive and receive value. "That's
how we have to start thinking about this thing, as opposed to, 'I won't buy
that from him because he'll make money and I don't want him to make money because
I'm not making as much as I should'."

In the short-term plan, however, Cowan says the task is to somehow ensure the
farmer survives to see the day when that value-added, industry-wide vision takes
shape. And that may be harder than the long-term plan.

At stake? Perhaps Canadian agriculture itself
Much of Cowan's and Martin's concern about Plant Breeders' Rights stems from
the litany of misinformation and myth pertaining to the saving of seed. Dr.
Bill Leask, executive vice-president of the Canadian Seed Trade Association's
office in Ottawa, Ontario, speaks to the need for PBR as a parallel to copyright
or a patent on a device.

"The bottom line is: why grant a plant breeder's right? In many ways it's
there to encourage an individual to use their expertise and be rewarded for
it," states Leask, adding that agriculture is in a dire situation because
of a lack of understanding of this basic concept. "One of the approaches
we see to getting out of this serious situation is to try to encourage investment
in innovation and create different varieties and different traits, particularly
those that might have greater value in the downstream value chain."

Without the guarantees of Plant Breeders' Rights, maintains Leask, investment
will take place in other countries, leaving Canadian growers, processors, retailers
and consumers behind in the development of improved or unique food products
and raw materials for value-added processing. And he strongly advocates growers
become more actively involved in the fight to get the truth out to counter the
misinformation.

"If the others do not speak up, it would appear that the NFU will step
into the void, and those arguments then appear to be the voice of all general
farm organizations," cautions Leask, while acknowledging the efforts of
growers like Martin. "And if general farm organizations do not share the
views of the NFU and others that have reported to be speaking on behalf of all
producers, they should be the ones that should be speaking up and providing
the counter arguments."

Fact and fiction on Plant Breeders'
Rights
Fiction: Farmers will never be able to save their own seed
again.

Fact: The current Plant Breeders' Rights does not have any wording that
allows the farmer to save the seed and use it himself, though it does
not disallow this practice. (Other agreements between seed companies and
growers may prohibit this, however). Proposed amendments actually enshrine
farmers abilities to save their seed on varieties granted a PBR certificate.
It allows farmers who obtain their seed legitimately, to clean, replant
their seed on their farm and no additional royalties on subsequent crops
have to be paid.

Fiction: Farmers have always been able to save their seed and sell it.

Fact: Currently, farmers are not allowed to sell their seed of PBR-protected
varieties or hybrids unless they have been granted a license to do so.
And they are not allowed to sell variety or hybrid named seed at any rate,
because the Canada Seeds Act prohibits it and always has.

Fiction: Private sector breeding is the only beneficiary of Plant Breeders'
Rights.

Fact: A CSTA review found 31 percent of the PBR applications and follow-through
were done by public institutions, which received royalties on seed sales
to the tune of $2.9 million annually. That money is reportedly reinvested
into Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research stations.

Fiction: Plant Breeders' Rights will result in higher seed prices.

Fact: Another review of Statistics Canada Farm Input Price Index (Table
328-0001) found that during the period of 1990 to 1999, with PBR in place
since 1994, the price of seed for cereals and oilseeds increased 8.6 percent.
From 1980 to 1989, without PBR, seed prices for cereals and oilseeds increased
24 percent.