Why all Canadians must be concerned about Bill C-18 and UPOV ‘91

Why all Canadians must be concerned about Bill C-18 and UPOV ‘91

By Terran Giacomini

Canada’s public seed system is under threat.

Biodiversity is under threat.

Farmers are under threat.

So what are we going to do about it?

Farmers are being told that the way to promote innovation and generate new varieties of crops is by amending Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights Act to align with the international model law, UPOV ’91. Bill C-18 proposes this amendment.

If passed, Bill C-18 will transfer a significant amount of power and control over seeds from farmers and public entities to multinational seed companies including Monsanto. All Canadians must stand up for a farmer-friendly seed system because farmers grow our food and protect the biodiversity we need to address climate change.

Background on C-18 and UPOV ‘91

Bill C-18, the “Agricultural Growth Act”, is an omnibus agricultural Bill introduced into Parliament in December 2013. One of the most controversial parts of the Bill is the proposed changes to Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights Act through the adoption of UPOV ’91.

UPOV stands for the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. UPOV is an international organization based in Geneva that creates model laws for governments to allow seed developers (including large corporations) to claim Plant Breeders Rights (PBRs) on seeds.

PBRs are similar to patents in that they allow those who develop new varieties to collect royalties and/or restrict the use of their property, the genetic material of the seed.

Currently, Canada’s plant breeders’ rights legislation is patterned on UPOV ‘78. The 1991 amendments took hold in the context of post-Cold War neoliberal reorganization and the ‘global wave’ of corporate amalgamation. The emerging agro-chemical multinationals needed UPOV to secure further claims to humanity’s and farmers’ seeds through its member countries’ national laws.

For more detailed information on C-18 and UPOV ’91 visit the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) ‘Stop Bill C-18 Campaign’ website at http://www.nfu.ca/issue/stop-bill-c-18.

Restricting farmers’ ability save, store, reuse and exchange seed

Current legislation that complies with UPOV ’78 grants PBR-holders exclusive rights to sell and produce seed for sale. This legislation also allows farmers to save and reuse PBR-protected varieties. However Bill C-18 (designed to make Canada UPOV ‘91-compliant) will change this by granting additional exclusive rights to PBR-holders to reproduce seed. The PBR-holder’s exclusive right to reproduce seed turns the current ‘right’ of farmers’ to save and reuse seed into a government-granted privilege. C-18 gives the government power to make regulations that restrict or erode farmers’ privilege over time[i].

Government-granted ‘farmers’ privilege’ is not guaranteed and can be easily taken away. According to Terry Boehm, former President of the NFU, this optional privilege to save and reuse seed makes the farmer “dependent on a government—which may change—for the privilege of doing what is absolutely fundamental to agriculture for thousands of years which is saving, reusing, exchanging and selling seed. … The farmer has to receive the endorsement of a government that may be hostile or co-opted by these giant seeds companies”[ii]

In addition, while Bill C-18 allows farmers to condition seed, it prevents them from storing it for use on their own farms[iii]. A company can claim PBR infringement and sue a farmer for storing harvested seed to replant, as many farmers do as a precaution against unfavorable conditions including crop failure or diseases[iv]. This regime puts farmers at risk of legal action should they violate PBR-holders’ exclusive rights.

Providing Multinationals with New Mechanisms to Extract Payments from Farmers

UPOV ’91 includes what’s called a ‘cascading right’ that allows breeders to collect their payment from farmers at any point in the food system. For example, a farmer might be charged a royalty when they deliver their crop to the elevator or the processing mill.

Included in cascading rights are End Point Royalties (EPRs), which could force farmers to pay royalties on their entire yield at the point of sale rather than at the point of purchase. This enables companies to extract higher revenues with the farmer assuming all the risk[v].

UPOV ’91 also extends breeders’ right to collect royalties up from 18 to 20 years for seeds, and up from 20 to 25 years for vines and trees[vi].

Bill C-18 provides tools to transfer ever more wealth produced in agriculture from farmers to the multinational conglomerates that hold PBRs in Canada.

Why We Must All Stand Up For Farmer-Friendly Seed Policy

Those who control the seeds, control the food supply. If Bill C-18 passes into law then Canadians will be forced to entrust our food system, our seeds, and our biodiversity to a group of highly consolidated multinational firms primarily interested in generating ever increasing profit for their shareholders.

“There can be no just and sustainable eating without the production of just and sustainable seeds,” says University of Wisconsin professor, Jack Kloppenberg. “For that, we need a diversified set of companies and seed sources producing a wide range of materials so that we can continue to eat diversely in our own homes. … Science based plant breeding has a great deal to contribute. So do farmers.  Bringing those two areas together in participatory breeding has really got to be the basis for plant breeding and seed systems of the future; the sustainable, just seed systems”[vii].

The answer to innovation is not in corporate breeding and restrictions on seed ownership. Internationally recognized seed expert and director of ETC Group, Pat Mooney, reports that over the past 50 years the industrial system has bred and patented 80,000 different plant varieties, 59 percent of which are ornamentals, not food varieties. During that same 50 years period, peasant agriculture has bred 2.1 million different varieties of food[viii].

According to Mooney, the “narrowing of the food system makes it almost impossible for the food chain to adjust to climate change”. Farmer-centered innovation together with farmer-centered saving and exchange networks will generate the new, diverse varieties that we humans need to survive climate destabilization. We do not need nor do we want UPOV ’91 and the control mechanisms put forward in Bill C-18.

It is important that we support farmers’ and their allies’ efforts to stop Bill C-18. We must not let the Conservative government prevent farmers from doing what they have been doing freely for thousands of years; what they need to continue doing for the benefit of all.

The NFU’s Right to Save Seeds Petition:

Please collect signatures at your local farmers’ market and other events and present it to your Member of Parliament (MP). (Need a minimum of 25 signatures).


For more information visit:

NFU’s Stop Bill C-18 Tool Kit: http://www.nfu.ca/issue/stop-bill-c-18

NFU’s UPOV ’91 Backgrounder: http://www.nfu.ca/sites/www.nfu.ca/files/Exec%20Summary%20-%20Nov%202013%20-%20UPOV%20%2791.pdf

NFU’s Questions and Answers about Bill C-18: http://www.nfu.ca/issue/questions-and-answers-about-bill-c-18

[ii] Terry Boehm, 29 November 2013. Interview. Ottawa, Canada.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] National Farmers Union. 2014. Questions and Answers about Bill C-18.

[vi] Ibid.

 [vii] Jack Kloppenberg, 29 November 2013. Interview. Ottawa, Canada.

[viii] Pat Mooney: Biodiversity, Small Farmers, and Solutions to Climate Change http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wu1zFR1OAKM.