Trade agreement with Europe threatens Canada’s farmers

by Terry Boehm

The fourth round of negotiations over a new trade agreement between Canada and Europe – CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) – took place in Ottawa last month and yet few Canadians have even heard of this trade deal. Many Canadians might expect a trade deal with Europe to be a progressive step forward, but, in this case, the opposite is true. The trade deal threatens to give biotech, pharmaceutical, pesticide and seed and grain companies powerful new tools to force farmers to buy gene-patented seeds at high prices. Worse, it will almost entirely eliminate the rights of farmers to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed.

This so-called bilateral agreement between the European Union and Canada is, in reality, a deal between Canada and the 27 member states of the European Union and, as such, it is hardly bilateral. That being said, the European Commission is negotiating this trade deal on behalf of EU member states and aggressively pushing an extreme right-wing agenda. Coupled with strong Canadian leanings in the same direction, the agreement is providing a platform for our government to bring forward legislation that would likely never pass on its own. Essentially, CETA is a “lets get it in the back door” approach from both sides of the Atlantic. This is exacerbated because the negotiation process is semi-secret where the “parties” have agreed not to disclose the content of the text while negotiations are in progress.

The National Farmers Union was able to obtain a leaked draft text of the CETA agreement in March and the scope and reach of the agreement is breathtaking. The deal would require compliance from all levels of government, including provincial and municipal. It is clear that the Europeans want access to our resources and access to all government procurement (purchasing) actions down to the municipal level, as well as all public institutions like hospitals, public utilities, provincial insurance schemes, etc. This agreement is really a re-colonization of Canada, with our federal government laying down the welcome mat. However, it is not just a re-colonization by Europeans, but colonization by international business interests via the European Commission.

Agriculture is subjected to a wide range of measures in this agreement. The procurement provisions would open up any agreement to access local food made by public hospitals, universities and all other government institutions. In addition, decisions to favour local businesses or disadvantaged sectors of the population would be severely handicapped by the procurement provisions of the CETA.

This trade deal could stop farmers from saving seed. The Europeans are calling for Canada to conform our legislation to The International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 Act (UPOV 91). This is a highly restrictive and powerful form of Plant Breeders Rights legislation. Canada is likely to agree to this demand because past Canadian governments have already tried to introduce these measures. It is only because of the National Farmers Union and its citizen allies that UPOV ’91 is not already in place in Canada. Canada currently has Plant Breeders Rights legislation that is based on the much less restrictive version called UPOV 78. This is sufficient to live up to all of our trade agreement obligations. UPOV 91 would severely limit and could outright prevent a farmer from saving, reusing, exchanging and selling seed. This would be accomplished by the breeder, or their designate, having the exclusive ability to control the conditioning (cleaning and treating) and the stocking (storing or warehousing) of the seed. Control of seed is control of the food system and it concentrates immense power in a few hands. Farmers will find their precarious financial situation even more tenuous if they are forced to buy all their seeds, rather than saving some.

In addition, the provision of a cascading right in UPOV 91 would allow the collection of royalties at any point in the food system. The so-called farmer’s privilege is dependent on governments and is trumped by the above UPOV ’91 provisions.

In those crops (and in the future, animals) with intellectual property rights attached as in Plant Breeder’s Rights or gene patents, the EU is calling for the most chilling enforcement procedures ever seen. These provisions would apply to all patents, copyrights, etc. They are calling for the right to issue an interlocutory injunction to prevent infringement and to the right of precautionary seizure of all assets of an alleged infringer. This would mean that farmers could be issued an order to prevent planting a crop with their own seed. And if a farmer was alleged to have infringed, he/she could be subjected to the seizure of crops, land, equipment and the blocking of bank accounts before the court hears the case.

If these provisions are adopted, they will put every farmer at great risk of being accused of patent infringement, with the probable result that the farmers will buy all their seeds (instead of using saved seed) to avoid these measures. Even if the accusation were unfounded, the average farmer could not fight back because of the costs involved. The agreement also calls for extending patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) by the length of time of time it takes for a regulatory body to approve a product for use or sale. If a minor use is found for the product (not originally claimed), the IPR/patent term would be extended again. This would add to the lifespan of patent rights for corporations and increase farmers’ costs for everything from seed, pesticides and drugs.

Our healthcare budgets are comprised of nearly 50 percent drug and medical supply expenditures and anything that adds to those costs, as this will, is a direct transfer of funds from taxpayers to big pharmaceutical corporations. Interestingly, public healthcare costs skyrocketed after extended drug patents were granted in the early 90s. The data provided for regulators to base their decisions on would be confidential as well. Public oversight agencies will not be able to disclose the basis upon which they make their decisions. They will also not be able to use this data for their own research.

The CETA trade agreement aims to harmonize regulations, such as food inspection regulations, so that products must be accepted by the other Party without verification (except in exceptional circumstances or new trade in that item). Therefore, something inspected in Europe must also be accepted by all provinces and territories in Canada. The same applies for Europe with regard to our food inspection services, except in exceptional circumstances.

The European Commission is hostile to Canada’s supply management systems – supply management is a unique system where dairy products, poultry and eggs are produced for domestic Canadian supply only and have a negotiated price with processors that insures a fair return to Canadian farmers. The Canadian Wheat Board will likely be attacked and jeopardized through this agreement as well.

European regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are exempted from the terms of the agreement so the agreement will not open up European markets to our genetically modified crops as those who grow them hope. In a briefing call however, Canada’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, stated that Canada was asking Europe to increase the acceptable level of GM contamination or “adventitious presence” in products coming from Canada.

The threats to Canadian agriculture and farmers are clear in this agreement and the broader scope of the agreement will affect all Canadians. The CETA goes beyond the World Trade Organization and the derailed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. What is particularly vexing is the speed at which the negotiations are proceeding and their relative secrecy. These governments and negotiators are our governments and negotiators and yet they have agreed to withhold the text from us. We must demand to be informed of all aspects of the negotiations and the text and that the public interest be respected and enhanced. Too often, our governments confuse their role as acting for us and in the public trust, with that of making sure they get out of the way of corporate interests, no matter how short-sighted they are.

The National Farmers Union has organized a campaign to stop this trade agreement. We will need all of our tools, allies and commitment to derail this and its content. We ask all Canadians to take the time to call and write our politicians at all levels and to fight on behalf of all Canadians. Join the fight for our seeds, hospitals, local food systems, local businesses, public utilities, supply management, the Canadian Wheat Board and our autonomy, in the face of corporate domination. We have little to gain and everything to lose if this agreement proceeds. Visit for more information.

Terry Boehm is president of the National Farmers Union,

Fraser Valley photo © Mhryciw |

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