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Is a united seed sector possible in Canada?

Finding modernization, value creation and synergy in a streamlined seeds agency

In spite of the size of agriculture in Canada, its home-grown seed industry is relatively small. Wheat and canola represent our two largest commodities by area, yet the domestic share of research and plant breeding activity is underwhelming. In part, that’s linked to the fact that the seed sector is comprised of a variety of interests, addressing everything from trade and technology to research and regulatory issues and seed growers. There’s hope, though, because for the most part, all the sectors share similar goals, even if their means differ.

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That was the backdrop behind Seeds Canada, an idea created in the hope of streamlining and increasing efficiencies, and improving research and development while generating market opportunities for farmers.

Initially, the agency was to consist of five organizations: the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), the Canadian Seed Institute (CSI), the Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada (CSAAC), the Canadian Plant Technology Agency (CPTA) and the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA). CropLife Canada consulted on matters of technology and regulatory dealings, but is not part of the Seeds Canada alliance.

The group’s mandate centred on seven pillars, with a collective goal to create synergies within the industry, modernize Canada’s seed and plant breeding sector, and create value for growers and member organizations. Specifically, the pillars will work to:

  • Develop and provide services that help seed industry stakeholders remain competitive in both domestic and international markets for high-quality seed.
  • Advocate and deliver real benefits to the seed industry through collaboration, innovation and continued investment and trade.
  • Provide efficient, effective and timely services for seed certification, quality assurance, innovative technology approvals, and industry standards and assessment protocols development and administration.
  • Raise the efficiency, proficiency and professional standards of members through comprehensive professional development programming and new professional standards.
  • Promote within Canada a competitive framework of intellectual property protection and services to its members.
  • Facilitate co-operation among federal, provincial and territorial governments and seed industry representatives.
  • Undertake other activities related to seed, crop value chains and the agri-food sector in Canada.

The hope was to have Seeds Canada operating by February 1, 2021. Each group held a ratification vote this past August with four of the five favouring amalgamation into Seeds Canada: the CSGA voted against.

Establishing Seeds Canada is more about securing the future for growers and less about “corporate control.” photo: File

What’s at stake

The importance of Canada’s seed sector is indisputable. After wheat and canola, seed is Canada’s third-largest crop, totalling farm cash receipts worth $2.57 billion in 2017 (Statistics Canada). In March 2018, the independent report, The Economic Impact Assessment and Risk Analysis furthered that finding, estimating the total economic impact from Canada’s seed industry to be more than $6.0 billion.

A report from CropLife Canada also stated “plant science innovations help farmers improve productivity on Canadian farmland, saving more than 35 million acres of natural land that would otherwise have to be used for agriculture.” It goes on to cite a savings of $4,400 per year in food costs resulting from “efficient, high-yield farming practices, enabled through plant science technologies.”

Despite the glowing numbers, the status quo in the industry is not sustainable, especially compared to other countries. Canada’s regulatory system relies heavily on Plants with Novel Traits (PNT) guidelines and an adherence to the “precautionary principle.”A 2018 study by the University of Saskatchewan found 42 per cent of industry players have had at least one research proposal rejected because of uncertainty in regulatory costs. And 45 per cent of respondents indicated they have terminated innovative research due to the risk of the final product being considered “novel” with the ensuing regulatory requirements.

Arguments against establishing Seeds Canada seem focused on concerns about Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) and about farm-saved seed, but the implications go far beyond those issues. According to Todd Hyra, there is a lot of common ground between the organizations — up to 95 per cent — in terms of a collective vision. The logical step would be to sort out the differences and build a system suited to everyone’s needs.

“It’s about ensuring that Canada has an effective seed system in the future, with different organizations all doing various pieces,” says Hyra, SeCan’s business manager for Western Canada and former CSTA president. “It’s time to align things — much like the producer groups. If you look at the Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Manitoba Crop Alliance, there was a lot of work to pull those together, with the same reasoning.”

Made-in-Canada solutions

Hyra was thankful to have CropLife Canada’s input in the generation of a “single voice” umbrella organization and its insight into Canada’s innovation and regulatory challenges. The organization’s efforts to keep the focus on working together for the good of the seed industry and its producer customers were invaluable.

“That includes new breeding techniques, chemistry and organic farming practices,” says Hyra. “It doesn’t matter how many options there are, it’s vital that each of those is respected and that no one is working against one another.”

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a preference for “homemade” solutions in several sectors, particularly manufacturing. But the need for domestic innovation in the seed industry may be more pressing, especially in cereals and pulses (excluding soybeans), and in light of expected budget cuts due to the pandemic’s impact.

Hyra is concerned with what that looming challenge will look like for the public breeding sector, not just in cereals or identity preservation (IP) soybeans, but barley, oats, flax and others. Some might say it’s a West versus East conflict, but that’s an oversimplification that fails to acknowledge investment and regulatory challenges that affect everyone, regardless of geography.

Generally, growers have to buy certified seed for corn, soybeans or canola, but cereals are losing out. photo: File

Discussions surrounding value creation have become a lightning rod for seed synergy, as well. Public programs need to continue, requiring more government investment. But there are also smaller breeders from Europe working in barley and wheat, and some regard Canada as a place to invest. Yet without value creation, they’re more likely to keep their genetics at home.

“The moment we start talking about value creation and the variety use agreement potential, my phone lights up and we get calls — breeders are interested,” says Hyra. “I’m confident we’ll see more investment in those other crop types as we start to put that framework into place.”

The variety use agreement (VUA) is another lightning rod for Seeds Canada, as it addresses the use of farm-saved seed. In the past — even with PBR — farm-saved seed was viewed as time-honoured and in need of protection. But there is a lack of money re-invested into the public sector, where many of the crop varieties originate.

Still, many farmers bristle at the notion of paying for certified seed, except with canola, corn and soybeans, where there’s almost no choice. When a program initiative like VUA is introduced, Ellen Sparry knows there’ll be resistance and some will ask why it’s necessary. But she insists the VUA actually protects the right of the farmer to save seed: it just sets out royalty rates if they do so.

“We anticipate that there will still be varieties that don’t have a VUA applied or older varieties that won’t at this point,” says Sparry, general manager of C&M Seeds and current CSTA president. “The challenge is to keep bringing those new genetics forward, whether it’s domestic breeding or investment from outside the country, and there has to be that return on investment to keep that going.”

The good?

The Advisory Council on Economic Growth — also known as the Barton Report — speaks to the enormous potential for agriculture in Canada as a world leader, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress. There are opportunities for the advancement of food production and the chance to benefit from Canada’s reputation for excellence in food safety — and Seeds Canada wants to be part of that.

At the same time, countries including Australia, Uruguay and the Netherlands are advancing on the global stage. Sparry believes there’s an opportunity to build a made-in-Canada solution but not without acknowledging the role of seed synergy, value creation and modernization. Besides, our world reputation in research and innovation has taken a hit in recent years.

“We think we’re extremely progressive but that’s not the way we’re viewed on the international stage,” she says. “We have had some individuals approach with opportunities but couldn’t get through the regulatory hurdles and they’re going elsewhere.”

Like Hyra, Sparry concedes that there tends to be an East-West divide in many of the perceptions framing the Seeds Canada debate, like the idea that Ontario and Quebec grow more corn and soybeans leaving cereals and pulses for the West. But research into new crop development comes when there’s a defined return on investment. Entice that, possibly from smaller companies, and the research (and development) will follow, not vice versa.

“It has to fund the research to carry out that development,” Sparry says, citing a CSTA document, mentioning how Canada’s poised to feed the world. “But there has to be a return to make that possible.”

The road ahead

As for what may happen to Seeds Canada, Jeff Reid agrees there’s a lot to be discussed. Will the original deadline be extended? Will there be a revised pitch for the CSGA? Or will the other four organizations proceed as planned?

“The most important aspect is the number of us who had a vision of what Seeds Canada could and should be,” says Reid, general manager with SeCan. “We still believe seed growers should play a large part in that organization, even though the CSGA didn’t ratify the package. My long-term vision of Seeds Canada would remain the same — very open and welcoming — and have a strong place and representation for seed growers.”

One of Reid’s overriding concerns with the seed industry in Canada is the negativity surrounding value creation, particularly with efforts that have been made to come up with reasonable, built-in-Canada solutions. He believes there are misleading components to the arguments against value creation, especially references to multinationals “taking over” the country’s seed supply.

“It’s ironic,” says Reid. “The majority of the complaints against Seeds Canada really don’t hold much water when they revolve around corporate domination or the ‘taking over’ of our seed supply.”

It’s unfortunate because it’d be a strike against the opportunity for increased innovation in Canada if public breeding programs can’t be adequately funded. The other concern is the loss of smaller independent players to start up their efforts or to continue those they’ve already launched. If smaller, newer entrants to the market aren’t supported, it’s a loss to the entire seed industry and the agri-food community in Canada.

As an example, a high-value product with a relatively small market is a challenge for a developer, trying to make money breeding a new food-grade barley variety for a small market. It can start to make sense in a more holistic view of the value chain determining the opportunity and need for investment in breeding activity to go after that.

Says Reid, “As business people, everyone understands dollars and cents, and farmers realize that if they can make more money partnering and working a plant breeder to satisfy a certain market, they’re likely okay with both making money.”

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