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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 10598


Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (11:35 AM) —in reply—I thank the members who have made a contribution to this debate. As this Plant Breeder's Rights Amendment Bill 2002 has been developed over several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding it. The fact that there were only a small number of speakers demonstrates that the issues that have been around have been able to be negotiated and that there is general support for the content of the bill. I particularly compliment the honourable member for Bonython for his comments and for his contribution to the bill. I think it is a pity that more people around Australia do not hear the sort of message that the member for Bonython has just delivered to the Main Committee.

It is important that people have before them a balanced presentation of the issues in relation to genetic modification. There is such hysteria, and nonsense being spoken in many instances, about genetic modification that the potential exists, as the honourable member for Bonython has rightly said, to delay the development of the best technology in Australia and to even risk Australia missing out on the best varieties and the new technology that farmers and other users of plants are enjoying around the world. His story about the use of chemicals on cotton in China is a story that is obviously repeated in Australia, the United States and a whole stack of countries. Cotton farmers have been one of the major users of organophosphate chemicals. Anything we can do to reduce the use of those chemicals is good for the environment. It is also good for the economics of farmers and, frankly, it is in the overall interests of the nation. Whilst the example of cotton is perhaps the most spectacular, and in many ways least controversial because very little of the cotton product is ever consumed by humans, the same principle can apply to other crops.

The advantages to the Third World of the development of genetically modified crops are potentially enormous. Hybridisation was a major step forward in agricultural production, but the benefits of hybridisation have never extended to the Third World because of the high cost of seed and the inability to keep the parent stock. GMOs offer the real potential for the best varieties and the best advances to be available to farmers around the world. That does not mean we should take risks. Obviously, everyone wants all of our food products to be safe, and that applies whether they are genetically modified or not. We do need appropriate regulatory machines but, more than anything, we do need some confidence building around the nation about the safety of these products. The sorts of comments that the honourable member for Bonython has just made will certainly help to contribute towards the public debate and a better appreciation of the potential value of genetic modification to Australian agriculture, to our environment and to the nation as a whole. Actually this bill is not specifically about genetic modification, but I know the debate in the Senate and also here managed to bring those subjects very much to the fore.

A number of questions were asked during the debate and I am happy to try and respond to them. I understand that queries were raised about whether the treaty requires Australian farmers to pay the United Nations a share of profits from crops grown from seeds stored in a global seed bank. I know that that issue has been canvassed from time to time also in the rural media. The treaty provides in general terms for payments to be made to a UN fund in some circumstances. This obligation would arise only in relation to plant genetic resources falling within the scope of the multilateral system established under the treaty. The obligation for such a payment would arise in those circumstances where a commercialised plant genetic resource, using material accessed through the multilateral system, is not available for ongoing research and development. The manner, form and level of payment will be determined by the treaty's governing body in line with commercial practice.

The payment system in the treaty implicitly recognises the freedom to operate characteristics of PBR. Commercialised plants for food and agriculture protected under plant breeders rights would be exempted from the payments because PBR legislation specifically requires new varieties to be available for ongoing research and development. However, payment may be required under other intellectual property systems such as patents, unless the patentee agrees not to limit further research and development. Australian farmers would benefit under the treaty. They would have continued access to new varieties of plants developed by Australian plant breeders using plant genetic material resources from overseas.

It was also asked whether the treaty establishes a worldwide seed saver network designed to protect biodiversity and to give developing countries access to new seed varieties. The treaty establishes a binding international framework for cooperation in the conservation, sustainable use and exchange of plant genetic resources, which is open to developed and developing countries alike. The treaty builds upon the existing system established through the Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1983, recognising the need to protect the genetic diversity of plant genetic resources. The system includes important world-class collections held in trust for the benefit of all countries, under the management of the International Agricultural Research Centres.

The centrepiece of the treaty will be the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing. The multilateral system sets out a facilitated access regime to govern access to, and the exchange of, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture—PGRFA—that is included in an annex to the treaty and which is under the management and control of the contracting parties to the treaty and in the public domain. The treaty contains measures to encourage individuals and organisations such as the IARCs that hold PGRFA to include that material in the multilateral system.

There were some questions about Australia's role and the time taken for it to become a signatory to the treaty. Australia's decision to sign the treaty did not involve any change of mind. The treaty was still being negotiated in the period 1996 to 2001, and so it was inappropriate to really make a commitment at that time. When the negotiations were finalised in 2001, Australia joined with other countries in adopting the treaty text. Australia has actively participated in the development of the treaty because it believes in the need for open exchange of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture based on a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. Australia supports the treaty's objectives and adheres to the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, which the treaty will replace.

There were also some questions about whether I had concerns about the transfer of genetic assets under the treaty, and reference was made to an article in the Australian in June of this year—an article which I have to confess I do not particularly recall. Australia's participation in the seven-year-long negotiations demonstrated our commitment to developing an effective, open and fair system of transfer of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. During the course of these negotiations, and in its comments when adopting the treaty text, Australia made it clear that the treaty must respect the national intellectual property rights of the contracting parties. The treaty does not change existing rights and obligations under other international agreements. The multilateral system must be applied in a commercially realistic way to facilitate open exchange of PGRFA based on fair and equitable sharing of the benefits and on the need for the list of crops included under the multilateral system to be assessed and extended at the earliest opportunity to enhance the benefits and potential achievable through the treaty.

There is also a query about the position of the United States and Japan in relation to this treaty. Both the United States of America and Japan have participated actively during the negotiations. No country voted against the treaty text. Both countries abstained when the vote for the treaty was adopted in November 2001. Both the United States of America and Japan can become parties to the treaty, and on 1 November 2002 the United States signed the treaty.

There were also questions about the processes and opportunities for signatories to have input to the processes of the operations of this treaty. When the treaty enters into force, the governing body comprising those countries which are contracting parties will become the forum for decisions about the treaty's implementation. Those countries that ratify, accept, approve of or accede to the treaty will become eligible to participate in the governing body. Decisions of the governing body will be by consensus, unless by consensus they decide on some other decision making approach. An interim committee open to all countries will undertake work in anticipation of the treaty's entry into force. There are also some queries about the details on royalties and their distribution which were not in place at the time of signing and a question about how these will be progressed.

When the treaty text was adopted by the FAO conference in November 2001, provision was made for the establishment of an expert group to develop the terms of the material transfer agreement to underpin the multilateral system. This expert group will also be given responsibility for developing recommendations on the commercial benefit sharing obligations, as outlined in my response to a question which Senator O'Brien put some time ago in relation to the payments to the UN fund. The interim committee met in October at the FAO and developed terms of reference for this expert group. Any payment under this scheme would be payable into a mechanism established by the governing body to receive and utilise funds and become part of the funding strategy. The treaty's funding strategy provides the priority to be given to the implementation of agreed plans and programs for farmers in developing countries, especially in less developed countries and in countries with economies in transition who conserve and sustainably utilise plant generic resources for food and agriculture.

There were also some questions about the basis upon which Australian plant breeders access foreign plant genetic material and whether they will have to pay. The Australian food and agricultural sectors depend to a significant extent upon access to overseas sources by PGRFA for continued plant breeding and improvement. The treaty will help secure Australia's plant breeders access to these crucial overseas sources. The treaty will build upon and replace the non-binding international undertaking on plant genetic resources established by the FAO in 1983, which has been of great benefit to Australia. If Australia were a party to the treaty at the time it entered into force, it would enable Australia and Australian plant breeders to access PGRFA from other parties to the treaty and to benefit from the new and enhanced global system of conservation, use and exchange. Under the treaty, contracting parties must provide to other contracting parties facilitated access to plant genetic material held under their management and control and in the public domain. Such access would be under the terms of a standard material transfer agreement agreed to by the governing body. As already indicated, there may be a payment obligation in some circumstances. If Australia were to become a member of the treaty, we could have a say in the governing body's formulation of the payment obligations, details and materials transfer agreement. This could be particularly important because our intellectual property system—for example, our patents—has the potential to trigger the mandatory payment arising when commercial materials are not available for further R&D. Finally, the treaty does not require recipients of material from the multilateral system to subsequently take out intellectual property rights on new varieties.

Overwhelmingly, the amendments are routine and will make administrative improvements promoting access to and improving the efficient operation of the PBR scheme. We explained the uncertainty that exists in relation to current section 18 of the legislation and, importantly, the changes that have been made to section 49 to ensure that conditions relating to existing and proposed PBR grants are appropriate. Again, I thank the opposition for its support for the legislation. As I have indicated, the government has agreed to an ALP amendment in relation to extending the size of the committee and will move to add those two members to the committee as soon as possible. In the spirit of bipartisan support that has finally been achieved in the Senate after a very long debate, I thank the Main Committee for dealing with it promptly.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.