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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 308


Senator MACKLIN(8.09) —I join my colleagues in the Australian Democrats to express our wholehearted opposition to both the principle of plant variety rights and the Plant Variety Rights Bill 1986 which is brought before us tonight. While the issues involved in this legislation are many and varied and complexities are numerous, as those who have engaged in this debate over the years in this place are well aware, in my contribution to this debate I wish to draw attention to one important aspect, and that is the February 1986 resolution of the European Parliament, dealing with the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and trees, which, amongst other things, said:

Stresses with concern that in the last few decades there has been a serious loss of local plant varieties (and species) throughout the world . . .

Given the ramifications of this resolution of the European Parliament, I find it astonishing that the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, has chosen to make no reference in his second reading speech to the work of the European Parliament. This is not because he is unaware of the resolution of the European Parliament. it is not because he is ignorant in the matter but rather that he, like so many others, is chasing a phantom fast buck at the expense of the fast diminishing genetic diversity of the world's cultivated plants.

In this Bill we are not talking only about a natural resource; we are talking about survival and we are talking about ethics. This is recognised by the European Parliament when it reports that 95 per cent of the world's food products are derived from only 30 plant species and that, with the advancement of genetic erosion, it is expected that in India by the year 2,000 there will be only 50 varieties of rice compared with 30,000 that existed at the beginning of the century. I think it is an extraordinary fact that only 50 varieties will be left out of the 30,000 varieties that were being grown at the beginning of the century.

The most horrifying disaster that genetic erosion can lead to is demonstrated by the well known potato blight in Ireland in the last century when the entire crop was lost. Millions of people died of starvation simply because many Irish farmers had relied on one variety of potato which succumbed to the disease and had not planted other varieties that were available in Ireland at that time and which certainly would have survived the disease, as they did in some parts of that country. The staple food of the people of Ireland was wiped out and millions died. In 1973-74 Bengali farmers lost 80 per cent of their rice crop, plus seedlings for their next crop, when they planted a new supposedly high yield rice variety supplied by several overseas companies. These were destroyed by the weather conditions at the time which other traditional varieties survived. Among the hopes that are held by proponents of plant variety rights are the expectations that PVR will benefit Australian breeders and that the private sector will increasingly contribute to Australia's plant breeding needs. Further, the proponents believe that this supposedly increased activity will bring financial rewards to the industry in general, to the private sector and to the country. Professor Lazenby and other PVR proponents either choose to ignore or refuse to accept the fact that overwhelmingly the majority of recent successful Australian patents have been held by overseas interests. If plant variety rights are introduced it will be the overseas-based agricultural corporations that will have the most to gain, and in fact will gain, in terms of their place in the Australian industry. The European Parliament made an interesting point on this matter when it said:

The seed trade is being increasingly concentrated in a few hands thereby eliminating the small-scale producers from the market and in addition the seed trade is now regulated by a small number of multinational producers who engage in both research and marketing, and can therefore determine which plant and crop varieties are brought on to the market.

With PVR in Australia, we can expect more takeovers of Australian firms by multinationals and the small Australian breeders will be out of business in very rapid time. As was recognised in a resolution of the European Parliament, the increasing concentration of the world's seed production in the hands of a few, and a wealthy few at that, means that they can determine which plant and crop varieties are brought on to the market. The ability to do this also gives them the ability to withhold whatever seeds they so choose. As the resolution of the European Parliament noted:

Hundreds of small-scale businesses have been forced out of the market by the big dealers who in addition to seeds also produce fertilizers, pesticides and preservatives. The dominant position of these enterprises is maintained by various means, including the system of registered trade marks.

This activity, combined with the increasing use of monoculture throughout the world, along with environmental and ecological changes and the resultant damage that had been caused, and the practice of various seed companies that prefer superior biotechnologically produced varieties to the supposedly inferior natural varieties, has led to an alarming decrease in the genetic resources available to the world. The European Parliament had this to say on the genetic diversity point:

(a) Less choice for consumers who have access to a more limited number of species or varieties bred for reasons connected with production and marketing rather than flavour and nutritional value;

(b) Lower resistance of monoculture to disease, leading to: Greater need for the use of pesticides and the inherent dangers to health and the environment; greater risk of disasters occurring.

(c) Elimination of the small seed-producing firms as a result of the tendency to restrict trade to a handful of varieties and thus create monopolization of the market;

(d) Increased costs for farmers.

I think the last point is a very interesting one. It is one that has been noted by some farm organisations in Australia but unfortunately not by the major ones. If, indeed, there are profits to be made, they must be derived from somewhere and someone will have to pay for them. In the first instance, undoubtedly Australian farmers will have to pay more for seeds. Another input cost would have to be paid at the very time when, in terms of the agricultural development of this country, we cannot afford one more input cost.

The concerns expressed by the European Parliament in respect of increased costs to its farmers were in fact derived from the experience of European counties with regard to their own plant variety rights legislation. In 1982 the European Court stated that the exclusive rights provisions of European plant variety rights legislation had led to unfair competition and excessive seed prices. The Court ordered that all European Economic Community members with PVR-type laws-that was, in fact, most of them-must remove the exclusive right clauses from their legislation. I think that was a very interesting and important ruling. Unfortunately it is one that has not been taken note of in the legislation before us. We are in fact doomed to repeat the type of mistakes that have been made in the legislation of other countries-countries with experience of PVR legislation which have had the advantage of hindsight to see how it worked.

The trend that occurred in the European countries has also been evident in the United States of America since the introduction of that country's Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970. Speaking before a congressional sub-committee in 1980, Mr Wilson from the United States National Farmers Union said:

Along with the acquisition of seed companies, seed prices have risen rapidly since 1970. All farm production costs have been rising faster than the general rate of inflation during the past decade and seed costs have been one of the leaders in the price rise.

That is an inevitable trend. It is a trend which will occur in Australia, and the farmers will bear the brunt of this piece of legislation. They will be the ones who will be providing the profits for the multinational companies. Mr Wilson continued:

According to the United States Department of Agriculture reports of farm production expenditures, the total cost of seeds and plants to United States farmers rose by 150 per cent in just five years between 1972 and 1977 . . .

Although the practice varies from one type of seed to another, major seed companies often specialise in certain varieties and concentrate their strategies on a regional basis. This practice reduces effective competition.

That is one of the things that I would have thought the Opposition parties would have been attempting to promote. Mr Wilson continued:

The growing potential for price manipulation may cost-

it will undoubtedly cost, and has cost-

American farmers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The European Parliament's resolution has also acknowledged the importance of maintaining genetic diversity in Third World countries and further recognises the dangers arising from the rapid erosion of diversity in the genetic resources of these countries. Plant breeding continues to be very dependent on the germplasm or seed collections which originally came from nine areas of genetic diversity in the Third World and which are collected by developed countries and, increasingly, by the large seed corporations. For a variety of reasons, including urbanisation and deforestation, these centres of diversity are rapidly diminishing. Add to this the storage of this germplasm in North American and European seed banks, the rapid movement by the large petrochemical corporations into the seed industry and the lobbying for patent protection of varieties developed from the germplasm and we have a recipe for disasters for many of the developing Third World countries.

The germplasm which originates in these Third World countries not only provides the basis for the huge profits of the agri-chemical and petrochemical companies but has also saved many industries in the West. Let me give some examples. The United States wheat plant introduction No. 178383 has saved farmers in the American north-west an estimated $US3m per annum from losses due to stripe rust. This particular variety originated in Turkey and was collected in 1948. Wild hops have made a major contribution to the high alpha-acid content that has given British beer that bitter taste. The estimated value of this item to the United States economy is $20m per annum. Hops, of course, came from Manitoba and some parts of California. Cherry material is estimated to have saved the United States industry, worth $US10m. Of course, that material originated in China and was collected only a few years ago when the cultivated cherry was losing its potential on the United States market. The only known perennial form of wild maize, which has been estimated by agronomists in the United States to be worth billions of dollars to their industry, originated in and was collected-and is still collected-in Mexico. We in Australia are well aware of lucerne because it is bred in Australia. It is estimated to be worth millions of dollars every year to the Australian agricultural economy. The particular varieties that are currently used in Australia were collected in the late 1970s in Libya. So we can see that these developing countries have contributed their genetic resources to other countries which are now patenting them and which are now deriving profits from them without providing those developing countries with any return. If we look at the motion by the European Parliament concerning this matter we see that at least one multinational body has expressed its concern in very clear and forceful terms. I wish to quote Dr Bennett from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation with regard to the dangers of plant variety rights. She said:

The actual effect of plant breeders' rights . . . is a simple one . . . it hands over a natural resource, that is genetic resources, to private hands for those private hands to use for private profit . . . We must ensure the populations of the countries of the Third World are guaranteed a food sufficiency for all in the shortest possible time and these objectives are obstacled quite unequivocally by the existence of plant varietal legislation or by any kind of legislation which places into the hands of organisations or individuals resources which belong to the human race.

That is a very interesting statement coming from someone who has a responsibility in the area to try to develop food resources for Third World countries. Dr Bennett probably knows slightly more about this than Senator Walters, who tried to interject earlier. She is working constantly in this area to try to ensure that those people have food on their plates. Senator Walters, of course from Tasmania, being a newly-found expert in this area of food requirements for Third World countries, finds herself greatly in sympathy with the multinational companies that are handing over these resources to private hands.

The concern of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that I have spoken of is reflected in the European Parliament's resolution. Indeed, when I was at the European Parliament that item was currently being developed and there was a lot of input from the UN organisation because of its genuine concern for food and food development in Third World countries, as distinct from the bleating from some honourable senators in this chamber. The resolution of the European Parliament demands:

Germplasm of all varieties of plants should not be regarded and treated as private property.

I believe that that is a simple, basic position which we in the Australian Democrats support but which is not supported in this legislation. The European Parliament's resolution further calls on member states of the European Community to adopt the Food and Agriculture Organisation's international undertaking on plant genetic resources, which states its concern in the following terms:

The UPOV Convention, which confers proprietal rights upon new-developed plant varieties and grants certain persons or institutions exclusive rights of distribution for defined periods, was having a restrictive impact on the distribution not only of new-developed varieties, but also upon their categories of germplasm . . .

It states a further concern with regard to the FAO, as follows:

. . . through its genetic conservation programme and the numerous governmental contacts throughout the world arising from this programme, was already fully committed-and still is-to a policy of full and free exchange of germ plasm in the common interest.

For Australia to take a responsible position in respect of Third World countries and the continued free exchange and availability of germplasm, we ought to support the FAO and not proceed with the membership of the club that we are about to enter into with this piece of legislation. The European Parliament's alarm at the extent of genetic erosion in the world last year led to a call for submissions, which closed at 1 January this year. The call was on the extent to which genetic erosion has affected cultivated plant varieties in the community over the last three decades. That report is currently being compiled within the European Parliament. As a result, I move the following amendment to the motion for the second reading of the Bill:

Leave out all words after ``That'', insert ``the Plant Variety Rights Bill 1986 be withdrawn pending the outcome of the study by the Commission of the European Parliament into the extent to which genetic erosion has affected cultivated plant varieties in the European Community.''.

We would then have a basis upon which we could make a much more reasoned judgment as to the likely effect that this piece of legislation will have on a society such as ours which depends so heavily upon agricultural production. In conclusion, I want to quote a statement by a number of United States religious leaders regarding this matter. It makes an alternate point, a point which I think is important for those who are considering support for this legislation. It states:

. . . stewardship of land and life itself are both symbolically and naturally joined in the life generating capacity of the seed. We must preserve for ourselves and for future generations the genetic variety of plants necessary to protect humanity . . . We are also disturbed by the acquisition of seed companies and patents by multinational corporations. The control of seeds, because it implies also the control of food production, and indeed of life itself, should not be appropriated to itself by any company or nation.