The Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, or UPOV, is facing extreme criticism as it divides Canadian farmers on whether genetically modified organism (GMO) seed patenting is conducive to growth in the agricultural sector. Part of the 2013 omnibus C-18 Agricultural Growth Act, the specific UPOV 91 legislation is creating controversy in its bid to fully control seed patents, grant crop royalties to agricultural companies, and forbid farmers their rights to store excess seed for next season’s planting. Canadian Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz is leading the controversy, following his success in ending the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly in 2012.
The National Farmers Union, a membership-based community of family farmers across Canada, has organized a downloadable petition on its website to protest bill C-18 and “retain control of Canada’s vital seed supply.” Copies of this petition form are hanging in post offices and public spaces across Canada, gathering signatures for presentation to the House of Commons.
What Gerry Ritz is proposing is nothing new in Canada, where canola farmers have already been forced to pay royalties on their crops each year, as well as spend part of their earnings on acquiring new seed every season. Seed patenting such as this is a process of genetically modifying existing strains of crop seed in order to produce higher yields; the seeds of these GMO crops are protected by law so that their producers can profit from their use. The legislation is conducive to further privatization of the agricultural sector, a reality that divides Canadian farmers on their faith in the public sector.
Here’s what has been happening since the beginning of the Neolithic Era, some 10, 000 years ago: farmers planted seeds, those seeds grew and produced food, the farmers saved new seeds from their food, then these were replanted to continue the cycle. What is being proposed now is radically different: Canada’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wants to allow GM seed patenting via UPOV so that agricultural GMO companies can profit from their research. In turn, this means that farmers no longer have the right to collect seeds from their own harvests in order to replant the same crop the following year. On top of this, farmers may also be expected to pay royalties to the GMO companies – such as Monsanto and Syngenta – every time they profited from the GM crop.
Terry Boehm, National Farmers Union President, is strongly against this legislation:
As the de facto representative of a deeply flawed farming and food system, Ritz’s sellout of Canadian farmers just gets worse every day. No one in the history of Canada has done as much damage to farmers and agriculture as he has. In the end, Ritz is giving over control of the most basic element of our food – the seed – to the likes of Du Pont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer. It’s a travesty.
Doesn’t Anyone Remember the pre-UPOV Green Revolution in India?
In the 1960s, India was facing a hunger crisis of disastrous proportions. To deal with this rampant poverty and starvation, GMO companies stepped in with modified seeds that had been created to resist pests and produce larger crop yields. Centuries-old Indian agricultural methods, such as terrace-farming and crop circulation, were replaced with so-called modern agriculture. Because of the genetic modification of rice crops such as those used by Indian farmers during the Green Revolution, the secondary seeds could not be relied upon to reproduce, and so seed had to be purchased every planting season.
The yields were higher at first, until local pests became resistant. Every time a natural factor intervened with the production of these GM crops, the companies would produce a new, more resilient type of grain in a race to beat natural selection. Eventually, the poorest of farmers lost the ability to buy expensive rice seed, while richer farmers followed foreign methods of agriculture that mistreated the very land they depended on. The gap between rich and poor had widened, and the land was deficient in minerals and water.
Despite this ominous history, Rolf Jordens of UPOV says that “new plant varieties are most important for rural development.” In an interview, Jordens also claimed that his company cares greatly for the preservation of plant genetic diversity, stating that the conservation of natural plant species is a an “important goal.” His company, however, will gladly leave natural conservation to the “public sector” and focus on profits instead. Public advocates for Canadian farmers, such as the NFU, believe that the battle over GMO seed patenting really comes down to the criminalization of basic farming practices.
An Editorial by Mandy Gardner