by SUSAN MANN
Using farmer-saved seed could cost you the farm if the free trade agreement Canada is negotiating with the European Union is ratified, warns a National Farmers Union spokesman.
President Terry Boehm says the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement would eliminate the age-old practice of farmers to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed from their crops. The agreement proposes property seizure, including equipment and crops, as the penalty for infringement of the intellectual property rights attached to plant varieties owned by global seed corporations.
“These measures are so draconian that they would generate a culture of fear in the countryside where farmers would be complying and buying seeds out of fear of losing their farms or having them seized,” says Boehm. He was in Ottawa Friday at a Council of Canadians rally to raise awareness and oppose the agreement. The Council is a social, economic and environmental activist group. Boehm says the rally drew 500 to 700 people.
Bette Jean Crews says the Ontario Federation of Agriculture wants to ensure farmers have access to seeds that don’t contain the terminator gene. Crews, the federation’s president, wasn’t at the rally.
It’s understandable companies would want to protect intellectual property rights by requiring farmers to sign contracts when they use genetically modified seeds. But “we want to ensure farmers always have access to options – seeds that they don’t have to sign a contract for,” she says.
Farmers are afraid the big companies may stop producing normal seeds that can be saved, she adds. “They will put in a terminator gene, which means the seed is sterile like quite often hybrids are.”
The Federation’s position on the proposed deal is there should be as much access as possible for grains, pork and beef without trading off protection for supply-managed commodities.
Boehm says the agreement “goes far beyond the scope of any agreement that we’ve had in the past.” He points out that it will prohibit public institutions and governments from favouring local food and locally owned businesses and services. Product and food safety will be at risk as Canadian standards can’t exceed international ones.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says in an e-mail issued today that the deal would be good for farmers as the European Union is already Canada’s second most important trade and investment partner with two-way trade totaling $75 billion in 2009.
In response to the NFU’s concerns, Ritz says Canada is committed to achieving an ambitious outcome in the best interests of Canadian farmers, including new and expanded opportunities for the beef, grains, oilseeds, pork and processed food sectors.
“Canadian producers rely on access to foreign markets to ensure economic prosperity and Canada will only sign an agreement that is a net benefit to Canadian farmers,” he writes.
The NFU says the Canada-European Union agreement is the biggest bilateral trade agreement since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But the government has kept negotiations quiet.
Ross Hinther, the NFU’s research director, says when NAFTA was negotiated there was a lot of discussion both with politicians and in the media. There hasn’t been anything anywhere near like that with these negotiations, he says.
Crews agrees. “I find the farmers that do know about it are the supply-managed farmers who always have their ears tuned to the fact that they could loose some of their marketing system.”
Ritz says the government continues to work closely with provincial governments and consults with “the full range of actual farmers.”
Grain Growers of Canada says in an Oct. 22 press release that it and the 80,000 farmers it represents have been closely consulted at every step of the negotiations by both federal and provincial negotiators.
The organization says the deal would be good for Canadian grains, oilseeds and pulse growers along with beef and pork producers as it would provide access to more than 500 million European consumers.
The fifth round of negotiations was held in Ottawa last week. Hinther says the federal government plans to ratify the agreement by the end of next year. BF