Why New Democrats Voted Against Conservative Agriculture Bill
The Conservative government accuses MPs who voted against their new “Agriculture Growth Act” as having no understanding of farming. However, this claim does not jibe at all with the farmers that I have spoken to who seem to think otherwise.
The omnibus bill C-18 makes changes to nine different pieces of legislation in which the government deliberately bundled the good with the bad. All New Democrats, a multitude of farmers and a great many Canadians are particularly uncomfortable with the bill’s proposed changes to seed laws. In effect, the legislation will solidify power over seeds to seed companies (like Monsanto and Syngenta), and give plant breeders similar rights to patent holders. Seed companies would not only be able to collect cascading royalties on their products, but also be able to limit their use. Costs to farmers will go up with no equivalent increase in benefits. Furthermore, C-18 is deliberately vague on some very key issues. For example, the legal role of seed cleaners, a vital element in farmers’ seed saving ability, is left in limbo. Small wonder the National Farmers Union has labelled the bill “A Corporate Agri-Business Promotion Act”.
Farmers have been selecting, harvesting, cleaning, storing, replanting and sharing seeds with each other since time immemorial. Through bill C-18, the Conservatives will turn these customary practices into a “farmers’ privilege” and empower the Minister to remove this “privilege”on a case-by-case basis. This process is far from democratic and it certainly isn’t transparent!
With the increasing costs of annual inputs, lack of market power, and the specter of royalties adding up at every stage, which seeds, when, how much and how often they will have to pay are questions keeping many a farmer awake at night. C-18 essentially takes those decisions out of producers’ hands. And, as more and more plant varieties carry stringent patents, it is not fully clear what kind of liability farmers will face if a seed should sprout up on the wrong side of the fence.
We have seen the impacts of poorly thought out Conservative changes before. Their criminal handover of the Canadian Wheat Board to multinational grain traders, their refusal to stand up for producers struggling at great cost to get railways to ship their grain to port, and ruthlessly gutting public research that benefited all Canadians to incentivize corporate research, are prime examples.
Here is a small sampling of the many amendments to C-18 NDP that agriculture critic Malcolm Allen introduced to protect Canadian interests that were voted down by the government.
- Remove the right of the Minister to undemocratically and secretly remove farmers’ privilege on a case-by-case basis.
- Protect producers from being wrongfully sued, by requiring that the intent to infringe must be proven for cases of patent infringement.
- Ban cascading royalties to ensure that contracts do not allow harmful royalties to add up at every stage of the transaction.
- Explicitly protect seed cleaners, taking them out of the awkward role of gate-keeper the legislation will put them in.
- Ensure that new crop varieties are as good as, or better than, existing ones, and protect access to public and heritage seeds.
The government has no business weakening such important ancestral rights to curry favour with those who have done nothing to deserve it. In doing so they are ignoring the fact that any new seed developed by corporate breeders relies on a world heritage of patient selection over thousands of years by successive generations of farmers. C-18 is currently being considered by our Conservative dominated Senate where there is every indication the bill will soon become law.