Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field
On Nov. 24, Parliament passed Bill C-18, the uninformatively named “Agricultural Growth Act.” Typical of the Conservative modus operandi, the government has used its majority in the House of Commons to push through sweeping changes to Canadian law in the form of an omnibus bill, allowing them to quash the debate that multiple bills would allow.
The omnibus bill is not completely bad, but it has key provisions that are bad for farmers and good for the corporations that profit off them. Which is why it has been roundly condemned by farmer organizations like the National Farmers Union (NFU).
The “Agricultural Growth Act” makes changes to nine different pre-existing pieces of legislation, some of which were not friendly to farmers in the first place.
The Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, brought into law by the Mulroney government nearly 25 years ago, is a perfect example. The name of the law suggests something warm and fuzzy: protecting rights. But this is deceptive; the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act actually stripped rights away from farmers, while granting whole new prerogatives—like the ability to patent seed—to private corporations like Monsanto.
For most of history farmers have bred and saved their own seed, making adjustments to gradually increase yield and disease resistance, and they have shared that seed with others. Farmers could save and plant their seed freely. In the 20th century, Canada also invested in publicly-funded seed breeding for public benefit.
But, as the National Farmers Union argues, Bill C-18 is part of a broader program that puts seed-breeding, and the benefits of that research, into the hands of private corporations. In the omnibus bill, farmers’ right to save seed is explicitly reduced to a “privilege”—one that can easily be removed in the future.
At the crux of the NFU’s opposition to Bill C-18 is an international convention called UPOV (from the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants). Canada currently uses the 1978 version of the UPOV convention, which recognizes a farmer’s right to save and reuse seed from their own harvest. But with Bill C-18, Canada will use a different version of that convention (UPOV ‘91), which requires that farmers get permission to save the seed they’ve grown themselves.
“UPOV ’91 is one of the most farmer-unfriendly mechanisms we have ever seen,” warns Jan Slomp, NFU President.
The deeper implications of all this may not be apparent to non-farmers, but the implications are very real and very troubling. Bill C-18 puts a huge amount of power in the hands of a few multinational corporations, like Monsanto, and strips away most of the remaining protections that farmers have.
These changes also make farmers more vulnerable to predatory litigation by seed companies. You may have heard the case of Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer who was sued by Monsanto in 1998. They alleged they had found their own patented canola growing on his land. Schmeiser argued that the canola had blown there (since tiny canola seeds and pollen are easily blown long distances).
Though Schmeiser later won the Gandhi Award for his efforts to protect farmer rights to save seed, he also accumulated legal bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Schmeiser became an example for both sides. He was acclaimed for his defense of seed saving, but surely other farmers have quietly paid settlements to Monsanto to avoid being dragged into a protracted legal battle.
Yet another problem with Bill C-18, explains NFU Vice President Ann Slater, is that it “gives seed companies the possibility to create monopolies to control future breeding by others through the Act’s ‘essentially derived’ clause, which gives breeders full control of any new varieties that exhibit characteristics of a company’s already-protected variety.”
In other words, a farmer who breeds their own seed with a quality similar to a patented variety may find that theyend up paying royalties, just because companies like Monsanto have the resources for legal battles.
A farmer’s right to save seed goes back 10,000 years. Let’s not allow the Conservative government to destroy it so a few big companies can increase their profits and control.
Aric McBay - Out Standing in our Field
As a farmer, I often find myself just looking out over the land; watching the movements of cows, or checking the incoming weather, or assessing the changing of the seasons. And especially in the late fall, when the Canadian and then American media are abuzz about Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about the history of that land.
I find myself thinking about that fact that nearly all of the land in North America was, to speak bluntly, stolen from indigenous people in one way or another.
I’m not sure if working closely with the land makes me think more about this than most people. After all, it’s not just farmland that was stolen, but all kinds of land. Pretty much every institution we encounter in our lives was built on stolen land. In the middle of Kingston there was once a Haudenosaunee village on what is now City Park, and those people driven out to make room for institutions like Kingston General Hospital, Queen’s University, a courthouse, and so.
Something people would rather forget this. But we can’t. Not just because it would be wrong to ignore injustices that continue to the present day. But because the food we eat is grown on stolen land and because virtually every meal we have includes foods created by indigenous people of the Americas.
Most of us learned in school that the native peoples of this continent were “hunter gatherers.” And it’s true that they were really good hunters and really good gatherers. But a lot of them were (and continue to be) really good at growing food.
Consider for just a moment the awe-inspiring diversity and importance of crops bred from wild plants by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Corn. Potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Tomatoes. Peppers both sweet and hot. Most of the beans we eat. Peanuts. All of the squashes, from pumpkins to zucchini and more. And cocoa; they invented chocolate, for goodness sake!
That’s just scratching the surface (since we could also talk about sunflowers, various nuts, berries and fruits, as well as wild rice, amaranth, quinoa, arrowroot, maple syrup, and so on). And then are then there are the non-food crops like cotton, tobacco, and rubber.
Corn, by tonnage grown, is now the most important food crop in the world. Potatoes are also in the top four, a short list which is rounded out by rice (originally from Asia) and wheat (from the Middle East).
The mostly white-fleshed potatoes we eat represent only a tiny sliver of the diversity of potatoes still found in the Andes, which come in a rainbow of colours (blue, red, purple, etc.). (The lack of diversity in potatoes spread to European made the crop more vulnerable to diseases like the one that triggered the Irish Potato Famine.)
Many of these foods were grown on a truly impressive scale, and not always in a way that was obvious to European explorers . Indigenous food growth techniques included ways of altering landscapes we often consider to be “wild”—like forests—by using deliberate small forest fires and other techniques to encourage certain plants to regenerate. Their efforts actually increased the diversity of species and improved the health of the land.
It’s a far cry from how settler society treats the land today. We clearly have a lot to learn from indigenous people. And a lot of injustice to correct.
Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit rootradicalrows.com.