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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 584

Senator VIGOR(11.54) —I support this amendment. It basically corresponds to the requirements we put on normal trading under the trade practices legislation that goods should satisfy the description which are given to them. However, here we have a much more difficult task with seeds to actually prove that the objects that are being distributed are in fact suitable. It requires highly technical tests to validate whether a variety is the variety which is held under the patent. This requires that the Secretary, who does have such resources available to him, should be essentially the final arbiter. We do not believe that self-regulation in this area, any more than in the previous area of legal responsibility, will be adequate.

We are beginning to know a lot of things about the breeding process which suggest that there is drift in characteristics during the course of the life of a variety or species. It is quite normal; it is the way in which genetic development takes place. We heard recently that the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus can be transmitted via an infected sperm cell, through artificial insemination, to both mother and the resultant child. This is an example in the human area of a germ cell passing a virus which is apparently completely separate from the normal genetic material. A lot more study has been made of human biology in this area, but we have absolutely no reason to believe that this does not also apply to plants. We know that we have plant viruses and that similar types of bodies are carried which do result in specific strains being carried on. In grapes, for example, the coloration in the leaves is carried on through the seeds of replanted grapes, and so we end up with the glory vine genetic mutation which is in fact the result of a virus within an original plant. We can induce this effect artificially. We know that viruses can exist latently in cells and we know that often these viruses are associated closely with the normal genetic inheritance and will reproduce in a normal fashion at the same time as the host cells multiply. They can, after years of apparent dormancy, become lethal. We can see the results of this in many places in nature.

It may also be that some of these characteristics are related to environment, and if a variety is not completely pure, a set of clones-if the seeds are not essentially clonal, with the exact same genetic pattern, which is quite unlikely over a period of time-some particular environment will favour one group of seeds against another so that the variety will drift. This legislation will be out of date before it is passed unless it embodies the responsibility of breeders and the Secretary to make certain that the seeds on the market in fact satisfy the description. We have seen that there are known ways in which genetic characteristics can drift.

There are other even more important reasons for requiring the Secretary to be involved in the process of continual testing and monitoring of the species, because undesirable characteristics can be transferred quite deliberately into a plant variety by biotechnological means. To give a completely ridiculous example, we can transfer the ability to produce the prohibited drug opium to a weak variety. This is technically feasible; the method is available. Once again, since the official testing of the plant variety before release on to the market is to be done by the developer and the registering body, it is important that somebody take the responsibility for ensuring that there is safety and quality and that this is not slipped in at a later stage. Lots of people who get supplied with the end products of the agricultural process could, for example, supply the seed and the buyer would specifically contract to get only the results of growing that particular seed. That is already happening. The suppliers could knowingly supply innocent growers and have them produce illegal drugs on their behalf. This example is a complete fantasy, but we do have to consider this type of situation. It is technically feasible and we have to be able to look at it. Provision must be made under this legislation for responsibility to go hand in hand with privilege.

It is also important that the state, through the Secretary, make certain that the natural product that is being passed on in fact satisfies the cri- teria it is supposed to satisfy. If we are going to give the imprimatur of the state and say `this is a particular product, a particular variety', the state must take the responsibility for what it is saying and must be prepared to test and guarantee the product. Otherwise, plant variety rights are not worth a cracker.