Calkins faces angry farmers over omnibus Bill C-18

The omnibus Bill C-18, which, among other things, seeks to modify farmers’ right to access to their own seed, is becoming a hot issue

Jan Slomp

Jan Slomp

The omnibus Bill C-18, which, among other things, seeks to modify farmers’ right to access to their own seed, is becoming a hot issue positioning area farmers and the federal government in a state of serious conflict.

The bill, which has already had its first reading in the parliament, has attracted strong opposition from the National Farmers Union (NFU) and its president Jan Slomp. He, and approximately 15 people, including producers and farm advocates converged March 12 on Wetaskiwin MP Blaine Calkins’ Ponoka constituency office to present a petitions signed by 110 farmers and individuals against the bill.

Among them was Doug Hart, NDP candidate from the last provincial election. Slomp was not allowed in the closed meeting as Calkins claimed the NFU president had abused his privileges of coming to his constituency office.

The petition requests that farmers be allowed to reuse seed on an ongoing basis without worry they would have to pay further royalties, explained Slomp. He suggests this would produce a greater genetic diversity in food crops.

Calkins countered that farmers will only need pay for the cost of the seed and for royalties once.

Slomp said he does not object to paying royalties but disagrees with having to pay royalties a second year after harvesting the first order of seed.

Calkins said he has heard concerns only from Slomp. “The only organization that’s opposing this is the NFU.”

Depending on the seller, royalties may be paid at the time of purchase or at the time of harvest. Those royalties depend on the seed, said Calkins.

“Not every seed has intellectual property,” he added dismissing Slomp’s assessment of the bill.

Seed costs continue to rise

Slomp says farmers are the ones having to pay greater royalties in the last 15 years for seed such as canola. “These costs have exponentially risen from intellectual property protection and varieties owned exclusively by these corporations.”

He suggests this bill allows a company to collect royalties every time a cow grazes or when a farmer cuts the plant.

Advanced payment for farmers a benefit

Slomp says there are some benefits in parts of the Bill C-18; and among them is the provision that farmers may be eligible for advanced payment.

“Well, farmers are experiencing very low prices and grain is not moving, so a lot of them are backed up into a corner,” he said.

The NFU president is in favour of this idea but suggests it should not be part of an omnibus bill. “Let’s not tie it all in with a bunch of legislative changes.”

Concerns presented to Calkins

Former NDP candidate Hart, who met with Calkins, said his concern is this bill gives too many rights to large corporations, including Morsanto, regarding the use, reuse and the sale of seed.

“My fear is that it would create an oligopoly for companies in food production,” said Hart.

He feels the bill, while stating farmers still have privileges to reuse, save and sell seed, may be beholden to the patent holder of those seeds.

Calkins rebuttal was that there is currently no legislation for farmers to reuse, save and sell seed. Hart’s concern with this legislation is farmers will end up paying more rather than less in the long run.

Slomp challenged another component of Bill C-18 by which Canada will automatically approve the use of a drug in agricultural products if another country, with which Canada has trade agreements, approves its use. Slomp said the term is “incorporation by reference.”

“It bypasses the role of Health Canada,” he added.

The dangers are there, says Slomp. A growth hormone for cows banned in Canada, called bovine somatotropin, is approved for use in the United States. He says incorporation by reference would make banning this drug impossible in Canada.

“The regulatory review that they have in the States would be automatically applied here,” explained Slomp.

Protecting new varieties of plants

Canada is a signatory to the 1978 International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Bill C-18 proposes that Canada adopt the 1991 UPOV agreement. Calkins says the former agreement is antiquated and creates an uncertain marketplace for seed companies to invest in.

Calkins and Slomp appear to disagree on the long term benefits of this bill. The MP says farmers will have a greater variety of seed and Slomp suggests the gene pool will be reduced.

Calkins says he intends to bring the petition to parliament and table it for a response but could not say when that would occur.

See more agriculture stories in this week’s Agriculture 2014 supplement.