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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 246


Senator SIDDONS(12.05) —Plant variety rights legislation has been before the Senate for a long time. I recall first debating this issue when I entered the Senate in 1980. At that time members of the Australian Labor Party were against the concept of patenting plant varieties. Now that they are in government, they seem to have done another backflip and have completely changed their attitude. They claim, of course, that the current legislation has been modified and is different from the previous legislation. But this concept remains: Is it morally right and is it in the best interests of farmers and of this nation to try to control plant varieties by allowing monopolies to gain control of variations of seeds and plants?

As the legislation has been before us for such a long time, I have had plenty of opportunity to research this issue in great detail. I will oppose the legislation. I was opposed to the legislation that was introduced in 1980, and I am still opposed to this Government's legislation. I believe the Government cannot escape the criticism that it is most likely motivated by a desire to keep close to powerful interest groups in the community in an attempt to gain their support in fighting elections. I believe this is another example of the Government abrogating its responsibility to look after the interests of Australians, and allowing private corporations, mainly multinational corporations, to ride roughshod over the interests of the Australian people, in order to make profits for themselves.

There is, I believe, an alarming trend throughout the Western world for large corporate interests to recognise areas of potential profit within what should be the public sector. They have been able to force governments in many countries to allow their interests to take precedence over the public interest. This had been to the great detriment of the population at large. I suggest that there is no clearer example of this than the PVR legislation. Surely, plants are the heritage of the human race. They are not something to be placed in private hands for profit. The notion that someone can own a seed is, I believe, immoral. The plant diversity upon which we all depend for our survival is part of our heritage. It should not be handed over to those who seek to use it to make private profit.

The basis upon which this legislation is formulated, I think, is very problematical. The concept of patenting a seed has a very shaky foundation. Plant varieties are not something that can be miraculously created by a company, a corporation or an individual. Plants are the culmination of an evolutionary process of nature and the work of a great many individuals and institutions over many years. Those who develop a plant variety do so by working on varieties developed over many years, over generations, by their predecessors. The proponents of PVR want large corporations to be able to appropriate the work of these institutions and individuals for their own profit. When PVR legislation was introduced to Europe some 20 years ago it had disastrous consequences. The facts are that small breeders in Europe, and in North America, have virtually disappeared from agricultural seed production which has now been handed over to a very few large corporations. Within months of the PVR legislation being introduced in Great Britain multinational petrochemical companies had bought up all the small seed breeders. One might ask: Why petrochemical companies? The answer is quite simple: Petrochemical companies produce fertilisers and pesticides; what better way to ensure a stable growth path than to develop seeds which need a healthy dose of both?

Plant genetic diversity is threatened by the dominance of large companies in plant breeding. If small producers disappear their genetic stock also tends to go and the varieties produced by the corporate giants come into widespread use. The plants are often hybrids and so their seeds are sterile or tend to become sterile. Thus the whole world's agriculture becomes dependent on a shrinking genetic base which cannot be added to--


Senator Walsh —What absolute technical rubbish. If they are sterile hybrids they have their own protection without PVR. Why cannot you understand something as simple and elementary as that?


Senator SIDDONS —I intend, Senator, to introduce a few practical examples to substantiate what I am saying. It is not technical rubbish at all. It is in fact capable of being verified. The points I am making have been verified by the experiences in North America and in Europe.


Senator Walters —Rubbish!


Senator SIDDONS —Well, let us just look at one case. In Turkey, for instance, a German company recently took over most of the plant breeders and a monopoly ensued. All the native varieties of sugar disappeared in a very short time. Within a few generations the variety manufactured by the seed company became so weakened that the input from older varieties was needed and the company had to scour all the vegetable gardens in the Turkish countryside looking for survivors of the old varieties. The Turkish example is one simple case of the greed of one company, which had a monopoly in one country, nearly causing a disaster for a very big agricultural industry in that country.

Of course, PVR will change the breeding dynamics and damage the system that we have in this country which has served Australia so well over many years. At present, most of the seeds are developed by State government bodies and by Federal institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. They look to the interests of agriculture in their breeding programs and they try to breed new varieties of seeds which will survive in our particular environment and have a long and robust life because of the diverse genetic makeup. Seed growers then distribute these seed developments commercially, continuing to use these varieties for many years to come. This system, as can be very easily demonstrated, has bred robust varieties and makes quantitative jumps in the quality of the seeds used in this country.

The motive of the private seed producer is quite different from these government instrumentalities. They want to make large profits-and they want to do that with the smallest outlay possible. This means that they take a variety partly developed by, say, a public breeding institution and develop it to the marketing stage as quickly as they can, Rather than spending 10 years and a lot of money developing further varieties from a wide genetic base it makes good business sense for them to get a variety on to the market as quickly as possible and then to make small variations in that variety yearly if they possibly can. This way they keep generating market interest and sales. The problem is, of course, that each generation from a limited genetic base becomes less resistant to disease.

The other danger of PVR is that governments will use it as an excuse to wind back the very good public work that has been done in breeding plant varieties in this country. This is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom, and I think Senator Powell alluded to that. As soon as the Thatcher Government introduced PVR legislation it set about handing over the public seed breeding institutions to private monopolies. I think Senator Powell also alluded to the European Parliament's recent pronouncement on seed breeding. I do not think she actually quoted from it. I will do so now. The European Parliament noted:

1. The seed trade is becoming increasingly monopolised and dominated by a small number of multinational producers.

2. In recent years there has been a serious loss of local plant varieties and species.

The European Parliament said this; it is not something that has been dragged out of some journal that may not have a good scientific base. The third thing the European Parliament said is this:

The decrease in genetic diversity may give rise to a lower resistance of monocultures to disease and less choice to consumer.

So there is concern in other countries about the patenting of plant varieties and I would have thought that we should have taken heed of it. I can see no reason for this legislation to be pushed through the Parliament. There is no great demand from the rural community as far as I can ascertain. In fact, many people within our rural community have expressed to me personally grave concern about this legislation. I have had literally hundreds of letters over the last few weeks from farmers expressing concern that the whole basis of plant breeding in this country is about to be turned on its ear.

Will plant variety rights give farmers cheaper seeds? I do not believe so. Once a product can be patented so that the rural community can be made dependent on it, of course, the game is then wide open to produce slight variations of the patented product and, of course, jack the price up at every opportunity. In fact, prices have risen alarmingly in countries where the PVR legislation has been enacted. One argument that we hear often in favour of this sort of legislation is the claim of its proponents that if we do not have it we cannot get access to new strains being produced by multinational plant producers in other countries. Let us have a little look at this argument to see how sound it is. In the first place, it is a fact that many overseas agricultural crops are just not suited to Australian conditions and have to be modified very substantially before they can be successfully grown in Australia.

As I have said, we have been very successful in breeding varieties that suit our conditions and our climate. We should not be importing varieties that have inferior qualities. The second point I make about the argument of greater access to overseas varieties is that it does not take account of the very strict quarantine regulations on importing plants into Australia. They are very stringent indeed. In some cases a period of up to 10 years might elapse before a plant variety can leave quarantine in this country. Of course, 10 years is more than enough time to breed a new variety right here.

The facts of the matter are that Australia misses out on very little by not having PVR legislation and gains much in terms of genetic diversity, soundly based breeding programs and healthy food. It is claimed that genetic engineering can come to the help of plant breeding and overcome the loss of genetic diversity which occurs with plant breeding overseas. This is simply not the case. I quote from the journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in November 1986:

It is clear that genetic engineering lends itself to making small genetic changes in a well adapted genotype and may well produce a character that is rare and undetectable in its natural environment. What genetic engineering cannot do is to bring about new multigene re-combinations of characters to build a completely new range of adaption. Classical plant breeding can, and often does, recombine groups of characters into better adapted genotypes. This is not a role of genetic engineering techniques for higher plants-a point that seems to be forgotten . . .

The Institute concludes by saying that genetic engineering will not solve this problem. It is sad that this legislation in its present form appears destined to be passed by the Parliament without amendment. I cannot understand how National Party members, who are supposed to represent farmers' interests, can possibly support this legislation, knowing, as I do, from the mountain of correspondence I have had from the rural community how many of their supporters are so strongly opposed to it. I cannot understand how the Government, which is supposed to keep the brakes on multinational profiteering, can take this course when it is against the interests of ordinary Australians, particularly ordinary farmers. It can only be on the basis that the Government's record of trying to support multinationals in this country is still well and truly alive. It is more interested in that than in the long term interests of plant breeding in this country.