Farmers' Saving Grace

Saving seed has gone from a historical necessity for farmers to a right, to a privilege and now, to a leasing opportunity. Some say that’s the price of innovation; others argue the price is too high.

“I’ve been farming for 37 years and it’s something my father and grandfather did. It’s just part of the cycle of farming for us.”

It’s clear over the phone that it’s a point of pride for Terry Boehm to grow crops from seed he saved from previous years’ crops — a farming practice that dates back thousands of years.

Boehm, who farms at Colonsay, Sask., about 55 km southeast of Saskatoon, grows his crops of wheat, barley, flax, rye, peas, lentils and durum — “almost universally” from farm-saved seed.

“I find that, over time… certain varieties that I like, if I continue to plant them on my farm, they tend to adapt to my particular practices,” he said, an idea that has borne out over history. But that’s only one reason.

The other reason is for the economy of saving seed — I don’t want to be totally dependent on purchasing outside seed on a continuous basis, a) for the cost and b) that’s one of the things that farmers are able to do very, very well… to produce good-quality seed for themselves on an ongoing basis.”

The process is simple. He selects a “healthy vigorous portion of a particular crop” and sets aside enough seed for two to three future crops as insurance against potential problems such as disease or hail.

The saved seed is cleaned either at an independent seed cleaning plant, or handled on-farm by a custom seed cleaning operation before going into storage.

Farmers do it because it saves money. A 2018 cost comparison by Alberta’s agriculture department showed saved seed to be the more expensive choice only in one year out of 13 studied.

Yield comparisons between saved and certified don’t come up with statistically significant differences, said Mike Scheffel, managing director of policy and standards for the Canadian Seed Growers Association.


“The reality is that the quality of the certified seed that farmers buy is such that they can safely save seed for four or five generations, probably, and still maintain the quality that that variety promises for that length of time,” Scheffel said. 


However, use of farm-saved seed is declining. 


Analysis by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 2016 shows farm-saved seed’s share of the total seed market by estimated value sits at less than 10 per cent in North America, compared to about 25 per cent in Europe and 60 per cent or more in developing regions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 


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Within that 10 per cent figure for North America, though, you’ll find some huge disparities by crop type.

“We’ve seen numbers for Canada, for example, before that seem to demonstrate that up to 80 per cent of the wheat that is planted every year in Canada is farm-saved seed, or maybe some commercial common seed… and that certified seed, produced by professional seed growers, is only around 20 per cent of the planting in Canada,” Scheffel said, noting crops such as barley, oats, peas and lentils are also largely produced from farm-saved seed.

In canola, by comparison, about 98 per cent of the planting in Canada is done with certified rather than farm-saved seed — and plantings of crops such as soybeans and corn are similarly bound up in fresh seed bought new every year, he said. 


If we zoom out to the worldwide level, the OECD’s numbers also show disparities by crop type. Farm-saved seed commands less than 20 per cent of the market share in corn, soy, rapeseed and cotton and practically zero in sugar beets. In wheat, barley and rice, however, farm-saved seed holds more than 60 per cent of the market, and in potatoes, about 70 per cent.

It’s partly due to changes in how farm-saved seed is regulated under international treaties designed to support plant breeders. 


It used to be that if a neighbour’s crop looked good, Boehm could contact said neighbour and perhaps buy — or straight-up trade — some of the resulting seed.

However, Canada has signed onto an international treaty on plant breeders’ rights known as the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ’91).

It was originally brought in to ensure plant breeders were fairly compensated for their work through royalties, but still allowed that seed to be shared between farmers. The original treaty UPOV 78 was revised in 1991 with further limits on how farm-saved seed could be distributed and used.  


Its so-called “farmer’s privilege” clause allows a producer to save seed from his or her crop for planting – but only on his or her own holdings. 

Now, “if I do see a good variety, or something I observe that looks pretty good in a neighbour’s field, then (I’ll) ask them about it, or if I go to a varietal crop day put on by, say, the Crop Development Centre or whatever… then I go to a seed grower and I purchase a bit of that, especially for wheat or flax or peas or whatever it might be and I’ll plant maybe 30, 40, 50 acres of that to multiply it for future use on my own farm.


'Various mechanisms'

For Boehm — who today also chairs the seed committee for Canada’s National Farmers Union (NFU) — it doesn’t take a road map or GPS to show how soybeans, canola and corn got there. 


Major crops such as corn and soybean acres, and canola are now protected under combinations of plant breeders’ rights, gene patents and hybridization, which make it impossible for farmers to re-use saved seed. 


It’s pretty indisputable that the advent of novel traits — and how seed developers sought to recoup their investment in those traits — changed the relationship between farmers and their seed supplies.


“You go back to the mid-1990s when new technologies — whether you call it herbicide-tolerant or pest-resistant technologies — were first introduced in core crops like canola, corn, soybeans… that was the first new introduction where farmers had to make a decision,” Trish Jordan, who handles government and industry affairs for Bayer Crop Science in Winnipeg, recalls. 


“There were lots of questions certainly in the early days; not everybody jumped on board right away. And that’s fine,” said Jordan, who came to Bayer through its 2018 takeover of Monsanto.


In conversations with farmers, she said, Monsanto representatives took the approach of “just saying ‘Hey guys — this is totally your choice, we’re just outlining the terms and conditions of use and why we think this technology will be beneficial to you; however, if you’re uncomfortable with any aspect of this, or the contract, then buy seed from somebody else, because we don’t want you to feel uncomfortable and we don’t want you making a poor decision.'”


Within a couple of years of the early product launches, “it was pretty clear that farmers were getting benefits from the technology and from the seed and they saw their neighbours getting benefits from it, and so there was pretty rapid adoption.”


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However, being asked to sign a contract, called a technology use agreement (TUA, that legally prevented them from saving seed was new to many farmers, as were the bin inspections, audits and court cases that ensued if they didn’t comply with the contract. Monsanto inspectors also went after farmers suspected of growing the patented canola varieties without buying the seed from a dealer and signing a contract.  


One of those cases was against Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, who claimed the canola seed blew into his field; the dispute ended at the Supreme Court of Canada. 


In what Boehm refers to as a “fundamental game changer” the court upheld Monsanto’s patent rights over genes contained within a seed. In effect, farmers found growing those patented genes in their canola fields without a TUA in place were guilty of patent infringement — regardless of how they got there. 


“That slammed the door shut for a vast majority of farmers to save and reuse canola seed,” he said.

In those early days, “I don’t know that we were that sophisticated in terms of understanding completely, ‘OK, how revolutionary is this? How big of an impact is this going to have?’” says Jordan. “Obviously, to make the investment, we clearly thought, ‘Yeah, we’ve got something here,’ just like many other companies thought — and if you fast forward to 2020 or 2021 clearly that hunch was correct.

“Did it go through growing pains and changes to the industry, and changes within the sector in how farmers dealt with companies and how they dealt with technology? Obviously.”

Another mechanism that brings benefits to the marketplace but limits to how farmers use seed comes through hybridization — that is, the cross-pollination of different plant species or varieties by human hands — can produce stronger and better-yielding first-generation crops.

But after one year of production, the seed produced reverts to parental lines, and the benefits of hybridization are lost. That means growers of hybrid crops have to go back to buy new seed every year — and that includes many new canola, corn and soy varieties.


A fourth mechanism limiting farmers ability to re-use seed comes under provisions within Canada’s varietal registration system, which allows owners of registered varieties to deregister them, which means that even if they are no longer covered by patent protection or are not protected under plant breeders’ rights, it becomes illegal for farmers to grow them. “In Canada you cannot commercially grow a crop unless it’s a registered variety,” Boehm said. 


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is currently reviewing the criteria for deregistering a variety and has asked for industry input into whether that decision should be left solely in the control of the breeder. 


The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s current list of varieties proposed for cancellation in the next couple of years includes AC Watson and AC Carnduff flax, Rosalin ryegrass, Admiral yellow peas, 14 oat varieties — and 255 soybean varieties.

Now, another mechanism has emerged to control how farmers use seed. 


Where farmers normally only pay royalties on their purchases of certified seed, the Seed Variety Use Agreement (SVUA) pilot project, organized by the Canadian Plant Technology Agency (CPTA) and the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), was set up with the hope of showing the benefits of farmers paying breeders a trailing royalty on seed saved for planting — an idea CSGA’s Scheffel likens to the streaming model for online music and video.

Nevertheless, the idea as proposed raised “a fair bit of controversy,” he said, “because, well, farmers don’t like that idea of course, of having to pay millions of dollars every year in aggregate, to replant their grain — something they were quite used to over many years, until relatively recently.”

Another similar model, not pursued in the SVUA pilot, involves “end-point” royalties, in which “everybody who delivers grain into the grain handling system would pay a buck or two per tonne, and the varieties would be identified as they were delivered, and somebody would have to look after allocating all of that money back to the breeding organizations that developed the varieties being delivered.”


Where the SVUA proposal goes from here remains a question mark, Scheffel said, as “obviously there was quite a bit of concern… from farm organizations, and a lot of farmers are opposed to seeing a regulatory framework being introduced that would formalize this kind of approach.”


For example, he said, this summer “some farmers that took a pass on some of the new varieties that were under the VUA pilot, because they didn’t want to sign that contract, and they picked another variety and went to another seed supplier for that type.


Proponents say the plan would encourage greater investment from the private sector in Canadian plant breeding, “instead of what happens right now — you sell somebody a variety one year and maybe they come back five years later and buy some more again. So it’s not very conducive to a return on investment, if you like,” Scheffel said. 


It’s likely some farmers will demur if asked to pay more for seed without a “clear, concrete value proposition” in front of them, while others see the benefits of establishing a system asks farmers to pay now for a benefit down the road. It can take 10 years to bring a new variety to market.


But Boehm cautions it’s not just the value proposition that has farmers concerned.


“What they object to on these trailing royalties on seed-saving, or the end-point royalty on the entire crop, is that they have no control of what the royalty level is set at, and they have no direction as to how it is used,” he said.


“These things are all incremental. Initially they’ll be set low enough, and people wouldn’t notice — not that big of a deal. But over time it would change.”



And from where he sits, the developer’s return on investment isn’t the only issue at stake for farmers, either. The current proposal lacks the usual checks and balances that provide patent protection for a time in exchange for ongoing public access. 


“The normal exchange in a patent system, or any other intellectual property protection system, is ‘OK, the government, the public, gives grants those protections in exchange for making the knowledge of how to replicate that freely available to the public.'”


Instead, he said, we’re seeing a situation in which varieties’ registrations are cancelled as soon as, or sooner than, the protections afforded to intellectual property have run their course.


For example, he said, “if I wanted to grow an Argentine canola variety, it’s almost impossible to find open-pollinated Argentine canola varieties, because all of the varieties have been cancelled.


“I feel if we’ve granted the possibility to profit to the developer of those varieties, when that period of protection runs out it should be in the public domain, and available for farmers and the public to adapt and to use as they see fit, and they’re perverting it by saying, ‘Well, it’s private property.’


Federal governments, he said, have “accepted this concept rather than saying, ‘No, this has been developed from germplasm that’s thousands of years old; you guys have built on the shoulders of public researchers and farmers and researchers from around the world. We’ll give you… a right, for a fixed period of time and after that period of time it should be in the public domain.’ That isn’t what’s happening.”


And that leaves “an awful lot” of Canadian canola growers, for instance, who “are not happy about the cost of seed. They do not like the model, but, because there is enough profit margin they sort of grumble and accept it… (but) they really don’t want to be pushed into a corner where every crop they plant is essentially monopoly-priced.” 


Everyone can agree that there needs to be continued investment in plant breeding if Canadian farmers are to remain globally competitive.

They also agree that farmers should share the cost of that ongoing research.

It’s the how that’s causing debate.

While seed developers see attaching royalties to farm-saved seed as an easily administered solution, many farmers see it as eroding a sacred right. Hear Terry Boehm of the National Farmers Union and Todd Hyra of Secan outline their views.


Business and policy decisions aside, pressures are also building on Canadian crops that don’t favour farm-saved seed. For example, CSGA’s Scheffel noted, midge-tolerant wheat varieties are now sold as varietal blends, as a way to help prevent pests from developing resistance to the midge-tolerant gene.

From those blends, “farmers are allowed to save their seed for one year, but then have to come back and buy certified seed of the midge-tolerant wheat varietal blend, in order to make sure that the ratio of the refuge variety to the tolerant variety is maintained at appropriate levels to safeguard the gene for midge tolerance.”

Similarly, he said, against diseases such as clubroot and sclerotinia, “certainly producers are looking for newer and better varieties that bring a package of traits onto their farm that can help them deal with some of those particular issues. But that’s just sort of the benefit of plant breeding and seed certification and those kinds of things as well – it’s part of the ongoing improvement, if you like, of the crops for Canada.”

While canola varieties resistant to clubroot may help, Boehm suggests “one of the things at the root — pardon the pun — of the problem, is that the economic pressures, of which the price of seed is one of them… and farmers trying to maximize their profits, has resulted in them probably not having as extended a rotation as they should with canola. So, as you tighten up the rotation you run into more agronomic problems.”

To deal with agronomic issues this way, he said, “I think farmers understand it, that the varieties that they will be purchasing commercially will probably be part of a package that are reliant on a certain fertilizer protocol, a certain fungicide or herbicide protocol — so it’s not just the price of seed, but it’s also the package that they end up with that… in the short term may be satisfactory, but in the long term maybe not so good for them economically.”

From where Bayer’s Jordan sits, development of new varieties and novel traits in the future will be about solving farmer problems. “The skeptic may say, ‘Yeah, they’re looking for something new and better, because their patent is going to expire’… (but) you can only get a patent if something is an improvement and novel over what you had before, so it’s not like we’re making it up.”

And that means providing an additional benefit, whether it’s dealing with disease or improving drought tolerance — or reducing carbon emissions. 

“Right now it’s all about sustainability — how do we help the farmer become more sustainable, how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how can we apply the technologies that we have, whether it’s digital farming or whether it’s plant breeding or whether it’s new technologies or new chemistry? How can those things contribute to bringing improved sustainability, not only to the grower, but to the planet?” she said.

With those concerns and more looming large on farmers’ and policy makers’ minds, Boehm still doesn’t expect the concept of seed saving to wither away on the vine.

The Canadian public, he said, remains “very supportive of the idea and the concept of farm-saved seed (and) understand the importance of not allowing all that power to be concentrated in a few major seed companies’ hands.

“I think we do that at our peril and these legislative mechanisms are making that possible, but at the same time these mechanisms only exist because our government institutions put them in place and it’s possible for them to remove them, as well.”

Contributors: Paul Yanko, Dave Bedard