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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1911

Senator PANIZZA (5.40 p.m.) —There are a few things on which I agree with Senator Coulter, especially on the good work that the CSIRO has done in breeding new varieties of wheat. I do not know whether Senator Coulter mentioned Roseworthy College, but what it has produced has been a great boon for the wheat growers of Western Australia. It showed the way for the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia, which has been rather blinkered for many years, for producing new varieties. I certainly do not agree with Senator Coulter's conspiracy theory, but no doubt we will argue that at another time in another place.

  I would like to declare my interest in the Plant Breeder's Rights Bill because of the vast `interest' I have in the agricultural industry, particularly the wheat industry. My family and I, along with other wheat farmers, benefit from the research done by plant breeders around Australia.

  The purpose of the bill has already been pointed out. It proposes to replace the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987. The main difference is the scope and strength of the new proprietary rights—obviously Senator Coulter does not agree with PBRs—extending the duration of breeders' rights to 25 years in the case of trees and vines and 20 years for any other variety. We must remember that when we come to wheat and barley, and probably triticale—the first two more than the last—we seldom have a plant variety that lasts 20 years. It has been a mighty long time since any wheat varieties lasted anywhere near that time, but we have the derivatives to worry about.

  The bill provides for an extension of the PBR to include import and export of propagated material, an extension that includes harvested material in certain circumstances and an extension to include essentially derived and certain dependent ventures, which are part of what I mentioned earlier. There are also increased penalties, which is probably the mainstay of the bill.

  I believe that this bill is very important in encouraging an increase in expenditure in research stations, such as the CSIRO, various departments of agriculture around Australia and some other private ones. Expenditure or funding for these stations seems to be ever decreasing, as has happened in the CSIRO. It is therefore important to have a bill that encourages more money to go into plant research so that those who do the work are rewarded, contrary to what Senator Coulter said. That is very important in the coming years. Speaking of the CSIRO, it is very important to make sure that we remain at least abreast, if not in front, of our competitors in world trade. I believe this bill should be supported by all parties.

  I direct my remarks in the main to the effects on the wheat industry of Australia. This legislation has come at a very opportune time because, as honourable senators may have read, the Australian Wheat Board is making a big push forward to lift the protein level of wheat in Australia because, unfortunately, it has dropped rather dramatically in the last 10-odd years.

  The reasons for that are wide and varied, but it has happened. Honourable senators have probably heard of the Wheat Board's new program called 2x10x2000. For those who do not understand that term, it means two tonne of hectare at 10 per cent protein by the year 2000. We have quite a long way to go because the average protein level in Australia is presently below nine per cent. If we could get an average of two tonne a hectare by the year 2000, that would suit me.

  As I said, there are other reasons for the drop in protein. Probably not many eastern state farmers would believe this at present, but there seems to have been a higher than average rainfall in the wheat growing areas for the last five, six, seven or eight years—in other words, since the last major drought of the eastern states. Of course, higher rainfall tends to lower the protein while giving higher yields.

  Another possible reason is that not enough nitrogenous fertiliser has been applied because the price of it has risen quite a bit in the last five or six years. The downturn in wool has led to the topdressing going down. The application of broadcasting super, whether one is growing crop or not—super means fertiliser—could have a bearing, as could the government's mismanagement of the economy and the effect on the farming balance of trade.

  With such an important bill, I thought the government would have had an A-grader in the chamber rather than a B-grader. If Senator Sherry hangs around long enough, he might arrive there. New varieties are needed to get the protein level up so that we can compete in the world markets, especially with the noodle wheat and other higher protein wheats that are in great demand at the present moment.

  The coalition supports this bill but that does not mean that I cannot question some parts of the bill—perhaps a bit more thoroughly than some of my colleagues and the National Farmers Federation. The first clause of the bill that I would like to address is that dealing with public interest exemptions for farm-saved-seed. The report of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs refers to this and states:

. . . clause 17 contains an exemption to the PBR, namely the farmers' privilege or farm-saved seed exemption. This permits a farmer to save seed from a crop to plant a future crop—

I emphasise the words `to plant a future crop'—

on the farmers' own land, without infringing PBR.

As Senator Coulter mentioned, it continues:

However, under subclause 17(2), "regulations may declare a particular taxon to be a taxon" to which the principle of farm-saved-seed does not apply.

There are a few points that worry me about that. I could probably take them up in more detail in the committee stage, but I want an explanation of how that is going to work. With the farm-saved-seed, people save the seed that they have harvested from plants grown from a registered seed bought from a breeder or from a farmer who has bulked up the new seed.

  For a start, when pedigree seed or a new variety is sold to a farmer, the farmer is issued with a certificate stating that he has bought it. I have asked, when there are two farmers in partnership, whether they get only one certificate and, if so, whether it covers both partners, whether it covers the farm or what the situation is. Similarly, where there are three or four farmers in partnership, do all of the farmers have to have a certificate?

  Then, of course, there is the sharefarmer situation. There are various ways of sharefarming. The farmer can harvest the seed himself and put it in silos. A sharefarmer can be brought in. He may put in the crop by way of a joint situation. What happens when it is delivered? Can the sharefarmer deliver wheat in his name using the certificate of the original farmer? Can he do that? I have not been told.

  There are other situations, too. The farmer may simply own the ground and a sharefarmer can come in, bringing his own seed. Can the sharefarmer use the original farmer's certificate or not? The report also says, with regard to farmer's privilege, as I read earlier:

This permits a farmer to save seed from a crop to plant a future crop on the farmers' own land . . .

Is he saving the seed from his own land? Is that farmer able to use it on a property that he has leased or a property that he is sharefarming? Nobody has told me that, either. The report also says, and I repeat, `to seed another crop'. What about the farmer's own food? If he wants to get his wheat milled on his own property, can he use it? The other question relates to stockfeed. I know that one is allowed to do a certain amount of things with that sort of seed, but are farmers allowed to downstream their own stockfeed to use on their own properties? There are far too many of these questions that are not answered. They are the fears that I have got in this regard. I will need a lot more answers to these sorts of questions.

  Dr Philip Davies gave evidence to the committee. He raised quite a few questions, as the representative from the United Scientists for Environmental Responsibility and Protection. He was not very happy about clause 17(2). Clause 17(2) states that the regulations may declare a particular taxon to be a taxon to which the principle of farm-saved seed does not apply.

  I have my own conspiracy theory in this regard. It means that anyone, at any time, may be able to control the varieties grown in Australia by applying to the minister. Clause 17(2) of the bill, which may be subject to amendment, may enable anyone to apply to have certain varieties withdrawn from certain areas. That might be my idea of a conspiracy theory, but I am very frightened that it might happen. Concerns were raised by Dr Davies in relation to clause 17(2). I will quote what he said in full, in order to better understand the situation. He said:

[Subclause 17(2)] provides an option for certain commodity producers to approach the Minister to request the Minister to declare by regulation that that particular commodity be excluded from the farm-saved-seed provision.

So the minister gets an application. It does not actually say that the minister has to take any notice. I give the example of the Australian Wheat Board, which sells all wheat overseas. It has a monopoly, and I believe that it should keep that monopoly to sell to the export market. In particular areas, it could get particular strains taken out, by making application. The minister does not necessarily have to take notice, because the minister can `possibly' consult—and I quote:

. . . would consult with possibly the Grains Council—

not that I am too frightened about what the Grains Council might say—

or the commodity group, before it could recommend that the Minister make regulations.

If the minister wants to listen to one particular group, he can have all the consultations on earth, but he does not necessarily have to take any notice. I have strong fears about that. I believe that that clause should be strengthened. I do not know whether clause 17(2) should be eliminated altogether, as Senator Coulter said. It may serve a purpose in regard to trees, vines or whatever. But with regard to the wheat industry, I am very concerned as to what may result from it. Of course, Dr Davies did not accept that the bill provided enough safeguards. The committee recommended that the Senate agree to the Plant Breeder's Rights Bill 1994, with the following amendment:

  that public notices should be given

(i)where an exemption pursuant to subclause 17(2) is being considered by the Minister;

But what does that really do? No doubt it alerts growers, but as I have already said, it does not confirm any rights. The minister need not take any notice of their concerns. Having drawn those rather depressing conclusions, I certainly support the bill for the reasons I have outlined. We must ensure that funds continue to go into research, especially in regard to new plant varieties. The same applies in regard to trees and vines. I am certainly interested to see the horticulture and wine industry progress. As I say, my main concern is with the wheat industry.

  We are going to have an inquiry into funding by the CSIRO for research into rural products. We must ensure that funds flow into these organisations. We must also ensure that these organisations retain the services of our top scientists. I am not necessarily talking about the CSIRO. That will be the subject of debate on another day. I do want to see it keep its top research scientists. The same applies to the departments of agriculture and other private organisations in Australia. I am very interested to see that we keep these research people in Australia. Our wheat industry competes with a vast number of countries—the United States, Canada, Argentina and a lot of European countries.

Senator Coulter —With publicly funded research.

Senator PANIZZA —Yes, that is right—with publicly funded research. No doubt those countries have privately funded research as well. But we are competing with all of those countries—and I know this is not the subject of this debate—which provide subsidies. While I do not advocate that we should have subsidies, we should keep up our research and keep our scientists in Australia so that they can give us the results which will enable us to compete against those countries which provide subsidies.

  We must make sure that a lack of funding, either public or private, does not cause our brilliant young scientists to take up some of the pretty good offers from countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, and maybe the United States and Canada as well. Those countries would be getting the benefit not only of our good, educated scientists, but also of the research that had been done in Australia. In order to prevent that happening, I certainly support this bill. I will be taking up the concerns I have expressed at the committee stage because I want to question the matter far more closely than the NFF has done. Otherwise, I fully support the bill. (Quorum formed)