1920 Alberta well baby clinic – LAC photo

(January 19, 2017) I had a great-aunt who only lived for nine days in 1919.  Like so many children and young women in the age before antibiotics she was killed by a simple bacterium that can now be cured with a short round of antibiotics.

From the 1930s onward those antibiotics were developed by dozens of private companies driven by a profit motive usually provided by government procurements to address social need.  However, we are seeing this model break down as the major pharmaceutical companies engage in a merger and acquisitions frenzy just like the recent mergers of the major agro-chemical-seed companies.  The names of these so-called “life-sciences” companies will be very familiar to both farmers and medical professionals with Monsanto and Bayer immediately coming to mind.

Professor Matt Cooper, the Director of the IMB Centre for Superbug Solutions at the University of Queensland estimates there are now only about 1,500 scientists in the world who understand how to hunt for and develop new antibiotics.  Earlier this year Radio Australia reported that AstraZeneca downsized from hundreds of people in its antibiotic lab to just 14.  The report went on to say that when Cubist, a major independent pharmaceutical company was bought out by the pharmaceutical giant Merck, they fired all 120 antibiotic researchers.  So between just these two companies the number of people working to keep the next generation of children safe from the common infections that killed my great-aunt some 98 years ago, has been reduced by a significant amount.

The reason is quite simple:  antibiotics are not very profitable.  Unlike treatments for excess blood pressure or cholesterol, which are used for the lifetime of the patient, antibiotics are seldom taken for longer than a couple of weeks.  The result is the development of new antibiotics has essentially stalled since the pharmaceutical mergers and acquisitions frenzy placed profit before social obligation.

The looming catastrophe in the antibiotics field is an obvious warning that the private sector model is a failure and there is a clear conflict between making a profit and providing what amounts to an essential public good.

So this raises a red flag for farmers considering the future of cereals plant breeding.  Cereals Canada, the Alberta Wheat, Barley, and Canola Commissions, and some members of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Commission are promoting the idea that control of cereals research should be handed over to the agro-chemical-seed companies along with a substantial amount of farmers’ check-off money.

Now it is no surprise Cereals Canada favours privatizing the cereals genome since its board is dominated by two groups:  representatives of the big grain handling companies and representatives of the big agro-chemical-seed companies.  As every farmer knows, canola seed is ridiculously expensive compared to seed developed through public plant breeding.

Obviously if this privatization process is not stopped farmers will pay the same extortionate rates for all the other cereal crop seed stocks as well.  As with canola, farmers will pay twice:  once with their check-off dollars for the research and again to the agro-chemical seed companies for the right to use the seed genetics farmers have already paid to research.  This is not to mention the built in conflict of interest this would create (read more here).

Since the Saskatchewan Wheat Commission is the only wheat commission on the prairies that is actually democratically elected by all wheat farmers paying for its operation, it is no surprise it has refused to join the industry-captured Alberta commissions and Cereals Canada in their quest to privatize the cereals genome. Manitoba farmers will have the opportunity to ask what the people running for positions on the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Commission stand for next month.

My friends in the medical community assure me that the end of the age of antibiotics is a life and death matter, and no doubt had she lived my late great-aunt would have understood that.  But the control of the cereals genome is more than just Cereals Canada having its way and forcing farmers to pay its members much more for seed genetics.  The cereals genome is just as much a matter of life and death as the antibiotic situation.  The question for farmers and policy makers is will we make the same mistake with the cereals genome that has been made with antibiotics?

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