A move to put more money into the pockets of seed companies is dividing farmers in Saskatchewan.

"This system is going to generate massive revenues," said Terry Boehm, past president of the National Farmers Union. "What they're going to be used for and what the net benefit is to both the country and to farmers is a big question mark."

At issue is the ability of farmers to save seed from their crops for replanting, versus the intellectual property rights of plant breeders and investment in better varieties.

The federal government is in the midst of adopting an international agreement known as UPOV 91, through proposed legislation called Bill C-18, The Agricultural Growth Act.

Seed saving not a guaranteed right

Gerrid Gust

Gerrid Gust applauds federal bill to strengthen plant breeders' rights, saying it will spur research into better crop varieties. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Under the bill, some farmers would be allowed to save, clean and treat seed from rights-protected plant varieties, for replanting on their own land. The measure is called "Farmer's Privilege". Farmers have traditionally saved seed because right now existing law is silent on the question.

But the legislation also opens the way for companies to charge royalties on new plant varieties at any stage of production — possibly at the seed cleaning stage, or on harvested grain — instead of when the seed is initially sold to the farmer. That detail is still being worked out. 

'This is a huge cash extraction.'- Terry Boehm, National Farmers Union

Supporters of the proposed law argue the changes are needed to give private companies the incentive to develop better plant varieties — particularly since public investment in this area is on the wane. 

"We have to get better varieties as far as yield, as far as insect resistance, as far as disease resistance, nitrogen use efficiency, water use efficiency," said Gerrid Gust, chair of the Western Canadian Wheatgrowers Association.

Gust also said the new royalty system should put a stop to the illegal practice of "brown-bagging," where farmers exchange seed from new rights-protected varieties amongst themselves.

"That always has been illegal," Gust said. "This [Bill C-18] will make that more so."

But Boehm worries the bill will actually erode the ability of farmers to legally save seed, because Farmer's Privilege falls short of a guaranteed right. There are already exceptions and the "privilege" could be further limited through government regulation.

Where does the money go?

Boehm also sees no assurance all of the money from royalties will be spent to develop varieties where Farmer's Privilege applies.

"This is a huge cash extraction," Boehm said. "And why would we expect these same companies, dominant companies, to invest in plant breeding at any greater levels, than they are on crops where farmers have to buy every seed, on crop kinds where they may have a Farmer's Privilege and can save some seed? They're going to invest even less on varietal development."

Both sides of the debate point to canola, where farmers are prohibited from saving seed from certain varieties, to bolster their point.

"We have seen substantial yield increases in canola over time," agricultural economist Richard Gray said. "Certainly farmers are paying a lot more for canola seed than they used to. But it's still one of the most popular crops out there, and most producers would argue that that crop and genetic improvements have contributed to their bottom line."

But Boehm credits improved farming practices for increased canola yields.

Farmer-controlled plant research

Both Gerrid and Gray argue that if farmers want more control over seed costs, they need to launch their own plant breeding programs.

But Boehm sees hurdles in that, too.

"The public infrastructure capacity has been so decimated that even if they collect these funds, they can't really find a place with the capacity to develop the varieties that they want," Boehm said.

He is calling for an independent body to set royalty rates — and say how they should be used.