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Wednesday, 9 May 1984
Page: 1856


Senator ZAKHAROV(5.52) —In the short time I have available I can do no more than briefly deal with even the more important aspects of this report on plant variety rights. I hope all honourable senators will read the report and the dissenting report and draw their own conclusions as to the respective merits of the two different conclusions reached. All I can hope to do now is raise the sorts of objections which led to our dissent and our belief that it would not be in Australia's best interests to set up a broad PVR scheme, with the possible exception of ornamentals. The terms of reference of the Standing Committee on National Resources were to examine the need for and implications of a plant variety rights system. I do not believe that the evidence before us established a need in the sense of providing a benefit for most Australians. There are grave risks attached to any further limitation of access to any factor in the food production cycle. Marketing practices and the growing power of large transnational companies have already led to restrictions of access, particularly in Third World countries but also in Australia. The introduction of PVR would, I believe, further restrict the rights of consumers and growers.

The implications of a PVR scheme can be summarised as possible financial benefits to a small group in the community and probable disadvantages for a very large group of consumers and growers. I believe that the introduction of PVR may have similar effects on the consumers of ornamentals but, by definition, nobody eats ornamentals and so the risks attached to PVR will not affect anyone's health or survival. Although there are some doubts as to whether PVR will stimulate growth or the export market of the ornamentals industry, representatives of that industry believe that it will and since my objections to PVR in the food production industries do not apply to ornamentals I have no objection to the introduction of PVR for that group of plants. The Committee report, I think significantly, makes no mention of the motivation of those giving evidence. When so much of the argument, on both sides, is backed up by insufficient hard evidence it is very relevant to look at the motivation of the opponents and proponents of PVR. The private sector interests could have much to gain financially from the introduction of PVR. They also have the resources to present their case in the best light-staff, travel expenses, and paid lobbyists. The opponents of PVR, on the other hand, have nothing personal to gain and limited resources to present their cases.

The report itself states that issues such as the possible impact on public sector breeding, market structures, genetic resources, the ownership of food resources, on Third World countries should be of general concern. This concern was widely expressed by groups opposed to PVR but very rarely by its supporters. I believe this fact to be very significant. I think due weight was not given to all the evidence because this motivation factor was ignored or even discounted. The two main arguments presented for PVR are that it will stimulate private breeding in Australia and that it will give increased access to overseas varieties. In the Committee report the claim that PVR will stimulate plant breeding is backed up by reference to European and United Kingdom experience where there is some evidence that private corporations noticeably increased their plant breeding activities after the passing of Acts granting PVR. The assumption of PVR proponents is that this increase in private breeding activity has had universal benefits, but benefits for whom? It is clear that the United Kingdom and United States Acts have allowed large agricultural chemical corporations to make considerable profits out of plant breeding. The evidence offered does not establish that there have been proven benefits to the consuming public or the growers. Some evidence suggests that there has actually been a deterioration in the flavour and nutritional properties of foods which are alleged to have been improved by breeding under PVR.

In the case of the United States, which has had PVR since 1970, a very thorough study of the effects of the Plant Variety Protection Act has found that there is no evidence that PVR has triggered large investments in plant breeding research and development or of large improvements in either techniques or plant quality. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics, which is favourably disposed to the introduction of PVR legislation on the basis of cost effectiveness, had this to say about the argument for the presumed benefits of an increase in private plant breeding research:

This argument assumes that increases in research effort would generate net gains to society. However, this point cannot be easily established by economic analysis.

Even if benefits of this nature were proven overseas, Australia's situation is not parallel. Australia has a long history of government assistance to rural industries and this is exemplified by the number of government-financed plant breeding research agencies which have been very successful in product improvement and the development of disease resistance. There is a real risk that these activities would suffer under a PVR scheme in a relatively small market, which Australia is, particularly if some future government, committed to privatisation of the economy and small government, were to remove potentially profitable activity from the public sector, leaving it to do the expensive work, such as the development of genetic resistance to disease, while handing over the exploitation of this research to the private sector. The claim that the introduction of PVR legislation would lead to vastly increased access to overseas varieties is not supported by convincing evidence. Appendix 3 to the report lists instances where it has been claimed that Australians have been refused access to plant varieties on the basis of our lack of PVR protection. There is a lack of documentation of these claims and no details of the extent to which the claims have been checked as to the grounds for refusal or the availability of substitutes. Again, hard evidence is lacking and submissions were often in conflict on facts.

Time does not permit me to cover all the other arguments put forward by the proponents of PVR. Much of the evidence was contradicted by other evidence, often within the same industry group. For example, it was said that seed exports were being prevented by a lack of PVR but the same submission refers to the successful export of cauliflower seeds to countries with PVR. The seed export industry earns at present about $5m a year and one of the successful seed exporters told me last week that improved production and marketing techniques by other producers could markedly increase that figure. At least some of the ills which PVR claims to be able to cure are embedded in the marketing system rather than at the point of production. A prime example is the takeover of the retail market by the tasteless tough tomato called floridade, produced for easy transport and packaging with no regard for the needs or tastes of the consumer. In the export sphere, the balance of payments against countries which are potential markets is one significant factor restricting the market, as is the existence of the EEC. I doubt, for example, whether PVR could stop the decline of the soft fruit canning industry but using the plant to can other varieties such as the so-called new semi-tropical fruits in particular, like feijoas and lychees, might help. I am sure that more efficient effort in the export field would pay off, as would the promotion of varieties which are currently grown but hard to obtain such as tomatoes with flavour and apple varieties which have disappeared from the shops in recent years.

The terms of reference for the inquiry did not include alternatives to PVR which might have achieved the same stated objectives. But the Committee did receive submissions proposing alternatives and I know that others are being discussed and worked on in the community. These should be investigated in the same depth as PVR has been investigated. The recommendation of the dissenting report is that any PVR scheme be restricted to ornamentals and that other means be investigated-for example, improved marketing procedures-to overcome the difficulties claimed as the rationale for PVR. I would have no argument with most of the recommendations of the report dealing with implementation, if a PVR scheme on this restricted scale were introduced at some time in the future. Finally, I thank the Committee Chairman and all the Committee staff for their help, particularly to those of us who were new to the Committee and had to examine a great deal of material and submissions already made to the previous Committee.

Debate interrupted.