By Glenn Tait
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. Ag 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 Ag 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.