Planned changes to Canada’s seed variety registration system are going ahead to make what the government calls a “more flexible” system, but what critics call a slippery slope to let seed companies ram unproven varieties through to market.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a release Thursday that the amended Seeds Regulations, published this week in the Canada Gazette, will cut red tape in the system “while continuing to maintain the integrity of seed certification and environmental, food, and feed safety.”
“By tailoring registration requirements on a crop-by-crop basis, we will increase the number of varieties available to producers and end users giving them more marketing opportunities,” Ritz said.
“It is also expected that producers and end users will benefit from more timely access to new and improved, value added, and niche market varieties that are in demand in the marketplace.”
The National Farmers Union, however, describes the amended system as “designed to address seed industry sales agendas rather than farmers’ needs.”
The amended regulations, Ritz explained, will partition the list of crop types requiring registration of varieties into three parts, with differing requirements for each part:
- Part I, which will continue to require pre-registration testing and merit assessment, but which the NFU said would allow merit assessment to be “watered down;”
- Part II, which will require pre-registration testing but not merit assessment; and
- and Part III, which will require a crop to be listed with “basic registration information only.”
Crops for which “undue regulatory burden has been identified” and for which consensus was reached in the crop sector have already been included in Parts II or III, the government noted, with safflower under Part II and potato and sunflower in Part III.
“Future changes for additional crops are possible now that the new framework is in place,” the government said.
“Eventually the seed industry will argue that their crop kinds all need to be moved to Part III because the claim will be made that independent testing and committee structures are too slow and expensive,” NFU vice-president Terry Boehm said in a release Thursday.
“The (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) administers the variety registration system and in spite of widespread concern and opposition to these changes expressed to them at meetings and through their online consultation process, they have chosen to advance these changes,” said Boehm, who farms at Allan, Sask.
But for some in the seed business, changes can’t happen fast enough. “While the regulations establish a new three-part variety registration system, they don’t place major crop species, kinds or types within the different parts,” said Jeff Reid, president of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, in a release.
“So for most crops we still have the status quo and all the regulatory requirements that go with it,” said Reid, who works for SeCan in Ontario. “Given that it took over a decade to get to this stage with the variety registration system, CSTA is quite concerned that it could be a very long time before we have a truly flexible variety registration system in place.”
The CSTA, he said, advocated for placement of crop species, kinds and types within the new system as part of CFIA’s planned regulatory package.
“Specifically, there is a need for forages to move out of Part I,” Reid said. “For many forage crops and types there are no resources to bring together a recommending committee or to conduct extensive pre-registration merit trials. The result is that very few new forage varieties are made available to Canadian farmers.”
The NFU’s Boehm warned, however, that “these changes will accelerate registration of seed varieties that companies want to get onto the market quickly.”
Until July 8, he added, “new varieties had to be better than or equivalent to existing varieties. This will no longer necessarily be the case.”
Of particular concern to the NFU is what it calls a possibility that genetically modified (GM) varieties will become easier and quicker to register. “The consequences for market loss are huge, and the threat to organic agriculture is also enormous,” Boehm said.
The NFU said it repeatedly called for a public appeal process to address issues including unwanted GM variety registration. “We are very disturbed that participating in consultations processes resulted in nothing, even when arguments were well-reasoned and broadly-advanced,” Boehm said.
The CSTA said it hopes the CFIA will move “quickly” to place crop species, kinds and types in Schedule III within the new framework. “It has to happen quickly in order for the new system to be effective,” Reid said.
CSTA also urged that crops that haven’t required registration in what until now was called “Schedule III” must remain outside of the variety registration system.
“Crops like seed corn, turf grass and some soybean types have evolved their own systems which allow for efficient introduction of new and improved varieties, while still providing the information that farmers need,” Reid said. “The approaches for these crops work well, and should remain. If it isn’t broken, there is no need to try to fix it.”