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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 307

Senator ZAKHAROV(8.00) —Before the debate was adjourned I was saying that the Minister has proposed in his second reading speech a review of the effectiveness and impact of the Bill after five years. It is unfortunate that that review could not be included in the legislation as there is a possibility, however remote, that this Government may not still be in power in 1992. Farmers and home growers will be able legally to retain the seed from protected varieties for next year's crop-that is, of course, provided that the seeds are not hybrids which therefore cannot be used to propagate. That is a problem that we have now with many varieties, particularly vegetables. So the rumours, claims that we will no longer be able to give our sons and daughters cuttings from our favourite shrubs or be able to give vegetables to our neighbours if the plants are of a protected variety, are vastly exaggerated. It is only the sale of such material which will not be allowed. Lovers of alfalfa and bean shoots will also be relieved to know that allowing a plant to sprout before eating it is not an infringement of a plant variety right. Reproductive material-seeds, cuttings, et cetera-can be used for research and further breeding without infringing plant variety rights.

There is to be an advisory committee, and this committee will have on it a representative of breeders, a representative of growers and a representative of consumers. I certainly welcome consumer representation because I think consumers have to watch very closely the consequences of this legislation, and I know the Minister will ensure that that representation is genuine. Again I fear that some future government might appoint a token consumer, as has been the frequent practice of conservative governments in the past. There is also a public interest provision, but only on ministerial discretion, and again I have reservations about some future Ministers who may choose never to exercise that discretion in the public interest. Other safeguards are in the legislation, in the right of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the 20-year limitation on rights, a shorter period than applies in the case of copyright on other types of properties. I welcome all these safeguards but, on the other hand, I fear that many of the hoped for benefits of PVR are most uncertain.

Dr Gladstones, to whom I referred earlier, a very eminent Western Australian plant breeder, has said:

It strains one's credulity that anybody should be so naive as to think . . . that seed companies will continue to promote varieties after they have made their main seed sales, and stand to gain little more profit from them; the more so when this will be at the expense of seed sales of their `new improved' models, which by then . . . must be on the market if the company is to stay in business.

In other words, continuity of supply of seeds may be uncertain. Dr Gladstones also believes there would be no profit for the big companies in developing improved seeds specifically for the Australian home market, where climate conditions differ markedly from those overseas and even differ in different regions in Australia. Farmers here, particularly grain growers, can usually safely store their seeds, so the seed trade is relatively small and is thus not an attractive specialist market to the private breeder.

Hopes of the legislation reviving the export trade to Europe, raised particularly in Tasmania by prospects of PVR, are, I believe, doomed to disappointment. Europeans eat, for example, mainly granny smith and jonathan apples, but they are grown by their own subsidised producers. New varieties of apples will not help this situation. Any major boost to the export trade in fruit or vegetables is more likely to come from better marketing. Recent examples of success in this area are sales of fresh grapes from Victoria in the European winter and sales, again by a Victorian firm, of vegetable seeds to China. A Press release this week by the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) refers to a multi-million dollar wildflower export industry in Western Australia. Paradoxically, we are also now selling cherries to the land of the cherry blossom, Japan. I believe the cut flower export trade, particularly to Europe, could be greatly expanded. The home market, too, has not been fully exploited. For example, Tasmania grows apple varieties which are not available on the mainland and which, I am sure, would sell there, and tropical fruits are often difficult to obtain in southern States.

Contrary to the claims of those who see PVR as a panacea, new varieties of fruit and vegetables can be, and are, introduced now without reciprocal PVR rights. An example is the yellow nectarine. At the time of the Senate Committee inquiry this variety was claimed to be desirable but unobtainable by growers because we lacked PVR, but it is now grown widely at the expense of the white-flesh nectarine, to the disappointment of consumers like me who prefer flavour to appearance. Not only consumers and home gardeners but also farmers are concerned about this legislation. For example, I have spoken recently with wheat growers who are concerned that market changes may necessitate buying new patented varieties, at a higher price, to replace their stored seed. Again, I emphasise that I welcome the Minister's proposed review at the end of five years.

One of my major fears about the consequences of this legislation in the hands of a possible conservative government is that public breeding will not receive the support it requires. One of the models presented by the proponents of PVR has always been the continued activity and reputation of the public breeding institutes in the United Kingdom in the years following the introduction of PVR there. Prime Minister Thatcher is now in the process of selling those institutes to the private sector. The threat of that happening here is very real if the present Opposition, or any part of it, were to gain power and pursue its policy of privatisation.

The present Government has increased assistance to public breeding and will, I am sure, maintain that support, but attention also needs to be paid to the education of future breeders. Dr Pugsley, an eminent retired plant breeding expert from Melbourne University, in a circulated comment on the Lazenby report, had this to say:

With respect to teaching the universities have the sole responsibilities in this field, for future progress depends largely on the initial training they provide. In Victoria, one senior lecturer has the sole responsibility for formal teaching in agriculture, horticulture and forestry within the plant breeding discipline. It is suggested that at least one university should be asked to develop a fulltime course in plant breeding.

Australian governments, both State and Federal, must maintain support for not only public breeding but also for training. A commitment to the public sector of plant breeding is, I believe, the real hope for growers who want better genetic material without the fear that new varieties will depend for their development and availability on the profit motive.

Finally, I would like to say to all those in the community who share my reservations about this legislation that the time for their objections to be really effective is now past. Lobbying at the level of that in the last few weeks might have effectively educated and changed the opinions of decision makers if it had come one or two years earlier. I urge all those concerned about the legislation to obtain copies of it and use the safeguards that are contained in it, such as the right to object if their commercial interests-as, say, vegetable growers-are affected by the grant of a plant variety right; monitor the operation of the PVR scheme, as a grower and/or as a consumer; and let parliamentary representatives know if people are not happy with the way it works or with its consequences. I sincerely hope the fears about this legislation will never be realised and that it will bring some positive benefits, not just to the large seed companies but also to farmers, home gardeners and consumers.