By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A Canadian bill that would give seed companies more control of the crops they develop should also encourage them to invest in the domestic production of new grain varieties, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Monday.
But the Agricultural Growth Act, being introduced by the country's Conservative government, is controversial among some farm groups, which say farmers will end up paying higher costs and ceding too much power to the companies.
The bill, if passed, would adopt the 1991 convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, an intergovernmental organization known by its French acronym, UPOV. Canada currently abides by a version of the UPOV plant breeders' rights convention that was drafted in 1978.
Updating Canadian legislation on plant breeders' rights would allow seed companies to charge royalties based on farmers' production and hold authority over farmers' storage and cleaning of seed they plan to reuse, among other changes.
"Our proposed changes will encourage increased plant-breeding investment here in Canada and encourage foreign breeders to sell their varieties to our farmers," Ritz said in Winnipeg. "Farmers will benefit from improved access to innovative new varieties."
Ritz said the bill, which also includes proposed changes for fertilizer and animal feed producers, could take effect in August 2014.
The bill is strongly supported by the Canadian Seed Trade Association, whose members include BASF SE, Richardson International Limited, Monsanto Co and Syngenta AG among others.
But the National Farmers Union (NFU) opposes the bill, saying seed companies will gain the upper hand on farmers. It will restrict farmers' ability to save seed from each crop for replanting and allow seed companies to collect royalties based on harvests while controlling crops through more stages of the supply chain, according to the NFU.
"This gives tremendous control of the food system over to a few rather large seed companies operating throughout the world," said Saskatchewan farmer Terry Boehm, past-president of the NFU, in an interview. "This system is not about facilitating innovation, it's about creating new tools that can extract more revenues from farmers."
Ritz said farmers would still be allowed to save seed for replanting but would have to pay a intellectual property fee or a royalty to seed companies.
The Grain Growers of Canada, an umbrella group of Canadian farm organizations, supports the change, saying it is needed to develop new seed varieties.