Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to Bill C-18, the agriculture omnibus bill. Let me say at the outset that I am extremely disappointed that we have yet another omnibus bill. The democratic process would have been much better served had this bill been split, especially the section dealing with plant breeders' rights.
This omnibus bill would amend nine different laws. The NDP believes we must take a balanced approach to plant breeders' rights. We must protect Canadian public researchers and farmers.
Although we understand the role of intellectual property rights, to encourage innovation, we want to ensure that Canadians have access to and can benefit from our agricultural heritage. The safety measures proposed with regard to seeds, plants and animals should result in additional resources for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
It is very likely that Bill C-18 will go to committee. It is therefore important for all farmers to carefully examine its contents. Hopefully, there will be ample opportunity for them to make their voices heard.
The most contentious provisions of Bill C-18 are without a doubt those regarding the Plant Breeders' Rights Act and the implementation of UPOV '91, the international convention on plant protection. Canada is a signatory to UPOV '91 but it has not yet ratified the convention and has not yet implemented its provisions.
When I was first elected in 2006 and became agriculture critic, I began to hear about UPOV '91 from many concerned with food sovereignty, especially farmers in the National Farmers Union. In fact, it is my understanding that after a groundswell of farmer-led opposition to UPOV '91 in 2005, the Liberal government of the day let it die quietly as it became clear that farmers would be drastically restricted in their ability to save, reuse, exchange, and sell seed.
According to the NFU, before reintroducing UPOV '91 through Bill C-18, the minister had been actually actively spreading the myth and managing to convince many farmer organizations and commodity groups that saving seed is enshrined in this bill. It is obvious that UPOV '91 gives plant breeders significantly more rights and tools for royalty collection while the farmers' seed-saving right is reduced merely to privilege.
A closer look at the text of Bill C-18 reveals that, indeed, it talks about a farmer's ability to save seed. When storing that saved seed, however, the farmer needs the permission of the holder of the plant breeders' rights, which may or may not be given. Of course, the breeder has the right to charge royalties as well. Bill C-18 also empowers government to remove, restrict, or limit the farmer's seed-saving privilege by passing regulations, a process that can happen quickly and without public debate. UPOV '91 has made provisions for royalty collection after a crop has been harvested, when seed is cleaned in seed-cleaning plants, or when a crop is moved off the farm for sale at elevators and other points of transactio, in the year the crop was harvested or in any year after that.
Under Bill C-18, plant breeders' rights will not apply to private, non-commercial growers, experimental use of seed, and seed used for the purpose of breeding other plant varieties, which is also the case under our current legislation. However, plant breeders' rights do apply to newly bred varieties that are essentially derived from plant breeders' right-protected varieties, allowing plant breeders to exercise control over the results of future plant breeding.
Adopting UPOV '91 would immediately reduce the freedom and independence of Canadian farmers by making it much more difficult to save and reuse seed, forcing them to pay more for seed. It would also impinge on the autonomy of independent seed cleaners, transfer millions of dollars every year from farmers to plant breeders' rights holders, and consolidate the power and control of the world's largest agribusiness corporations over seed and, thus, over the Canadian farming and food system.
As well, if Canada adopts UPOV '91, farmers will not be allowed to save, store, or clean seed for replanting without the express permission of the PBR holder. If granted, such permission is dependent on the government adopting, on a crop-by-crop basis, an exemption called the farmer's privilege, which may be time limited and would likely entail payment of royalties to the PBR holder.
Companies would have a cascading right, allowing them to demand payment of end-point royalties on the whole crop, including each cut of hay on foraged crops, instead of just on newly purchased seed or when the company has been unable to collect adequate royalties on seed alone. Companies would be entitled to royalties for at least 20 years on each variety for which they hold PBRs, up from the current 18 years under Canada's UPOV '78 regime.
Seed cleaners would require permission from PBR holders to clean seed, which, if granted, may be subject to conditions such as payment of fees to the PBR holder. Mills and processors that buy crops would require assurance that the farmer-seller has paid PBR royalties to avoid the risk of litigation by the PBR holder.
Farmer's privilege to save a small amount of seed from designated crops may be granted by governments through legislation, but this privilege could be rendered useless, because seed companies would be able to restrict seed cleaning and storage.
What are the long-term implications for Canadian agriculture if UPOV '91 is adopted? According to the analysis by the National Farmers Union, some of the likely changes include:
...higher per-acre cost of production due to higher seed prices;
lower margins because end-use royalties will reduce potential gross income at sale;
fewer and larger farms because reduced profitability will drive larger scales of production;
loss of independent seed cleaning businesses as farmers are forced to buy seed directly from PBR holders or their licensees instead of cleaning a portion of their harvested crops for use as seed;
increased litigation within the value chain as PBR holders seek to maximize royalty revenues; ...
Having said all of this, the obvious question is what is the alternative if we do not adopt UPOV '91? Pending the adoption of a truly farmer-friendly seed law, we could maintain Canada's current UPOV '78 plant breeders' rights regime, which balances the interests of the public, the farmers, and the plant breeders.
We could restore funding to public plant breeding. Canada's public plant breeders are internationally respected and have contributed greatly to Canadian agriculture. For example, nearly all of our wheat varieties have been developed by AAFC in collaboration with several Canadian universities. None of these varieties would have been part of Canadian agriculture without the government's long-term support for public breeding.
We could take plant breeding to variety level. The federal government has stopped funding public plant breeding beyond the development of germplasm, which must then be sold to private breeders to develop varieties for commercialization. The new varieties so developed are privately owned and subject to plant breeders’ rights.
Farmers, whose check-off dollars support this research, would pay yet again through the increased royalties that would be granted under UPOV ’91. This system of private interests benefiting twice, first by using public research funding and then by collecting royalties on seed and production, is unjust and against the public interest.
We could also protect farmers from expensive court litigation regarding plant variety and patent disputes.
Finally, I would like to say that we, as parliamentarians, need to look very carefully before rejecting a system that has worked well for farmers. I would once again like to thank the National Farmers Union for their efforts in analyzing what is at stake here with Bill C-18. It is my hope that all farmers and farming organizations will give this research careful consideration prior to making a final decision on this bill.
Five years ago I toured Canada to see what Canadians had to say about a national food policy. These consultations gave civil society groups, agricultural organizations and ordinary citizens the opportunity to express their concerns about vulnerabilities within the existing food production system.
I visited more than 28 communities on this tour. All across the country, participants almost unanimously agreed that Canada should protect its food security and food sovereignty.
They feel that Canada should develop a comprehensive food policy so that every Canadian can have access to healthy food, so that local producers can maintain their agricultural operations and so that we can protect the agriculture sector for future generations.
Participants also proposed that the federal government support local producers by enforcing mandatory local procurement for state institutions and that it encourage other governments to do the same.
What this implies is that Canadians, especially farmers, need to have more control over their food supply. This ability to control a country's food supply is the fundamental principle of food sovereignty. Since we are a trading nation, our goal has to be to somehow find what I call a delicate balance between trade and food sovereignty. As was pointed out to me during my food for thought tour, and as many Canadians are saying today, the balance is quickly tipping away from our ability to have control over our food supply. Bill C-18 is just another step in this direction. If we concentrate the power in the hands of multinational corporations, we as a nation become vulnerable and lose the ability to feed ourselves.
I have taken a lot of criticism from the other side when I have questioned the benefits of our so-called free trade agreements. I have often said that many of our fruit and vegetable producers have been put out of business because of the free trade agreement with the United States and NAFTA. Prior to these agreements, we had in-season tariffs that protected our farmers. Now they have to compete with a free flow of produce into Canada that is often dumped at below the cost of production.
In its report, “The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Toward a New Analysis and New Solutions”, the National Farmers Union has made a correlation between the drop in cattle prices at the time of the report and the implementation of the Canada–U.S. free trade agreement in 1989. Since then we have seen our exports drop due to BSE and trade initiatives. Now we are being hit by U.S. country-of-origin labelling, or COOL.
Many people who took part in my cross-Canada consultations questioned the wisdom of including agriculture in free trade agreements. Let us look at our supply managed sector. It is a system that works, receives no government subsidies, and provides Canadians with excellent milk, eggs, and poultry products. It works because we do not allow the free flow of these goods into our country. Now with the proposed Canada–Europe trade agreement, or CETA, this farmer-run system is under threat. Canada will allow an additional 17,000 tons of artisan cheese from Europe, which will hit our cheese producers hard, especially those in Quebec. Now there is talk, of course, of government subsidies to help these farmers. The whole thing does not make any sense at all. Our cheese producers will now be competing with farmers from the E.U. who are being propped up by government tax dollars. There is pressure to further erode our efficient supply managed system as we prepare to sign on to the trans-Pacific partnership agreement, a further loss of control.
Many of us stood in this House as we tried to convince the Conservatives not to dismantle the farmer-operated Canadian Wheat Board. With a stroke of a pen, and no vote from farmers, the CWB lost its single-desk capacity to sell wheat and barley. There is some justification to say that the current backlog and crisis in the rail industry could be an indirect result of the change in roles of the CWB, which used to coordinate rail shipments of grains under the single-desk system. What we saw over the winter was a lack of coordination and railway companies not responding to the needs of farmers.
This gradual loss of food sovereignty extends to the whole area of genetic modification. For example, if the GMO Arctic apple is planted in B.C., it will contaminate non-GMO varieties, and farmers will lose their markets. If GMO alfalfa is released into the environment in Ontario, it will also contaminate and cripple, especially the organic industry.
In British Columbia we are fortunate to have the agricultural land reserve, introduced by the provincial NDP government in 1973. No succeeding provincial government has tampered with this protection of our arable land, which is less than 5% of our total land surface, until now that is.
The current B.C. Liberal government is leading a core review which could result in land being taken out of the ALR for development purposes. The current B.C. agriculture minister, Norm Letnick, to his credit, has opened the consultation and I thank him for this. I know that the provincial NDP agriculture critic, Nicholas Simons, as well as MLAs Katrine Conroy and Michelle Mungall in my riding also have been very vocal in their support of the ALR.
We only have to look at the recent drought in California to see the effect this has on us. If this is a trend in the future due to climate change, it is imperative that we put more land into production rather than taking it out.
One of the largest broccoli producers in Ontario once told me that he only made money when there was a drought in Florida. It appears there will be more droughts, which means we need to put more land into production. I was told that the city of Toronto only had enough food supply for three days.
What role could the federal government be playing to ensure that our food supply is based on conservancy? I leave my hon. colleagues in suspense because I will tell them the answer the next time I have a chance.