OBSOLETE VARIETIES MAY BE COSTLY

Concern has been raised in recent months about the so-called “variety treadmill” as groups oppose the pressing need to de-register obsolete crop varieties when newer ones are developed to take their place.

One a variety has been de-registered in Canada, it is not allowed to be grown, and there are very good reasons for that. However, some would have you believe that it’s nothing more than an elaborate plot to control Canadian agriculture.

Opponents claim that the process will cause farmers “...to lose their rights to save, re-use and exchange seeds ... that farmers will find themselves on a variety treadmill, with new varieties being offered while good varieties are deleted ...”

That point of view is like looking at an elephant through a magnifying glass -- it’s hard to see the real problem.

PROTECT FARMERS AND MARKETS

The most often cited example is in the canola industry, where more than 100 varieties have been de-registered in recent years. In spite of what people are led to believe, it was done to protect Canadian farmers and markets, not to force new varieties on them.

More than 70% of the canola grown in Canada is exported, either as seed, oil or meal, and it’s an industry that is worth more than $2 Billion. That canola is sold into countries that have their own regulations about what is or isn’t allowed, and that usually means zero tolerance.

Many of those canola varieties were de-registered because they contained traits that aren’t allowed by those who buy the product. Continuing to grow those varieties would increase the chance that an unwanted trait will end up in a market where it’s not approved, and finding the wrong trait will mean rejected shipments, increased monitoring, and the potential loss of a lucrative market for Canadian farmers.

It’s no different for other crops. Obsolete varieties may be more susceptible to insects or diseases, have unacceptable milling characteristics or protein levels, and growing them may not only cost the farmer doing it, there could be disastrous economic impacts for his neighbors -- through outcrossing, co-mingling or increased management costs. A misplaced desire to grow outdated “cheap” varieties may come at a heavy price.

AN UNNECESSARY EXPENSE

There is also a cost attached to maintain the registration of a variety – and it’s especially difficult to justify when very few use it. Resources devoted to Canadian agriculture are dwindling, but at least one research institution has been required to maintain more than 80 varieties that have no economic significance. It’s required to multiply, store, test and monitor seed of varieties that markets don’t want and farmers won’t grow -- but the varieties live on because they’re in the public domain and there’s no mechanism to get rid of them.

It’s like being forced to buy a pet license every year even though it’s been decades since the dog died.

Once a variety has been registered In Canada, , it’s considered safe unless proven otherwise. However, that may not be the case in other countries, which require repeated assurance (and proof) that those old varieties are “safe” as new environmental, health and safety standards are adopted. After all, those obsolete varieties were developed without the same stringent controls that apply today.

Perhaps those opposed to de-registering old varieties can take over the cost of maintaining them.
However, they should also be prepared to shoulder the responsibility – and liability – if that obsolete variety winds up costing their neighbors a crop -- and Canada its export markets.

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