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Annual conference of the Seed Industry Association of Australia, Canberra, ACT: address.



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Senator Judith Troeth Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Address to the annual conference of the Seed Industry Association of Australia

Canberra, ACT, 30 August 2001

Introduction Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much for inviting me here today.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the annual conference of the Seed Industry Association of Australia.

The seeds industry is certainly a valuable rural resource, with production occurring over a wide range of climatic and agronomic conditions throughout Australia.

With an annual turnover of over $300 million, and export earnings in excess of $100 million, it's vital the industry remains in a strong position to tackle the challenges of the new century.

Today, I would like to discuss several of these challenges, including the establishment of an Australian Seeds Authority and the importance of Plant Breeders Rights.

I would also like to comment on the Export Market Development Grants scheme and some of the issues relating to plant biotechnology.

Australian Seeds Authority — OECD seeds schemes I am sure that you are all aware that efforts are now well under way to establish the Australian Seeds Authority or 'ASA'. In fact, I understand that it will be a topic of discussion at this conference.

There has been general consensus within the industry for some time on the need for an industry-based body to administer seed certification and accreditation.

This need has become greater given several recent developments, which have seen some State governments gradually exiting the role as principal providers of seed certification.

Unfortunately, this has meant several States deciding to close their certification laboratories. The industry is clearly undergoing significant transformation.

The Federal Government believes it is appropriate for a national organisation to be established that is fully equipped to deal with these changes. I understand that a business plan prepared in 1999 recommended that the ASA assume responsibility for all matters relating to the international trade in seed.

A good idea can sometimes lose momentum, however, and in the case of the ASA, there have been several false starts since the plan was prepared.

Thankfully these problems now seem to be behind us.

I understand that at its recent annual meeting, the Australian Seeds Committee unanimously gave its support for the ASA. This resolution represented Commonwealth, State and industry unity on this issue and should provide the basis for the way forward.

We must position our industries to be self reliant, more competitive, more responsive to market conditions, and — importantly — more innovative.

The ASA will allow us to encourage the industry to be self-reliant in a very real sense, and to allow a transfer of ownership and responsibility for industry activity to the industry itself.

However, there is always a role for the Government.

Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, has provided assurances that AFFA will continue to fulfil its responsibilities as the National Designated Authority of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) seeds schemes, and will maintain an appropriate government-to-government role.

To establish the ASA, a lot more work has to be done. The first priority will be preparing articles of association, board appointments, preliminary recruitment, and so on. But the Government’s vision for the ASA goes beyond this. And I think, and hope, that industry shares a similar vision. A vision that the ASA will:

be a representative organisation, responsible for seed certification and accreditation, compliance, representation and funding; ●

deal with matters relating to the OECD Seeds Schemes, the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) and Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA); and ●

progressively assume a broader range of responsibilities, including training, quality assurance, an industry code of practice, basic seed maintenance, industry aspects of quarantine, and administration of comparative seed testing between laboratories.

●

I understand that SIA’s SeedQual Australia recently obtained Category One membership of

AOSCA. It is therefore pleasing to note that the proposed ASA will include provision for SeedQual Australia to provide AOSCA certification of seeds.

There is clearly considerable potential for SeedQual to operate effectively alongside the ASA.

I urge SIA to continue working with the Grains Council of Australia, with State agriculture departments, and of course with AFFA to finalise and establish the ASA. With the support of the entire seeds industry, the ASA will be most successful.

Intellectual property and plant breeders rights I'd now like to turn to the innovation and intellectual property protection that helps underpin your industry.

Access to the very best innovative plant varieties, and the effective commercialisation of such varieties, is fundamental to your business interests, and to the agricultural sector in general.

But the general population has not really come to grips with the concept of intellectual property. Instead, the average person only becomes aware of intellectual property in particular contexts, usually when it hits the headlines. For example:

when millions of dollars worth of pirate CDs are crushed; or ● when the management of the Wallabies rugby team announces that it wants to put in place IP protection on game-plan tactics. ●

Such reports help raise awareness about the innovation in products and services that are part of our daily lives, and the need to pay for them.

As the Prime Minister has observed, innovation is the means by which all of us can succeed, whether we are in small business, or employees in larger companies, or primary producers, or even as parents wanting better opportunities for our children.

Australians already have a reputation for inventiveness. However, we need to harness that intellectual strength and better focus it if we are to further improve our products and provide greater income and more jobs for Australians.

The Coalition Government is committed to innovation and to intellectual property protection that promotes commercialisation. This commitment was again demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s launch in January of the Innovation Action Plan for the Future — Backing Australia’s Ability.

The Innovation Action Plan is a comprehensive package, including an additional investment by the Government of $2.9 billion over five years.

This has translated into a number of significant initiatives for agriculture. For example:

an additional $736 million for the Australian Research Council competitive grants; ● a $535 million boost to research infrastructure funding; and ● a $227 million expansion of Cooperative Research Centres. ●

This Government has long recognised the need to stimulate private sector investment in innovation. Plant breeding is a creative activity that requires the deployment of scientific

knowledge and individual intellectual skills and energy.

However, plant breeding is a lengthy process, and an expensive one, requiring a significant commitment of resources.

Plant varieties, like other living material, reproduce themselves. So once a breeder releases material into the market place, it can be reproduced by others, with little need to return to the breeder for fresh supplies. (A similar frustration is shared by authors and composers).

Plant variety protection is designed to provide the incentive and the reward for investment of the plant breeder’s resources. The Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 1994 is successfully providing the protection that is required by the IP owners of new plant varieties.

There has been an impressive growth in the number of applications for registrations under the PBR scheme. More than 3,300 applications for registration have been received and the figure is growing at about one new variety each day.

A glance at the PBR scheme records reveals some impressive statistics:

there were 350 new applications last year, with a similar amount expected this year; ● up to 100 new breeders enter the scheme each year; ● around 60 per cent of all applications are from overseas; and ● 680 new varieties of field crops and pastures have been processed since the inception of

the scheme. ●

And there have been many PBR export success stories, including:

grapes for the US market; ● special durum type wheats for Italian pasta; ● mangoes to Japan; and ● cotton exports, from a raft of improved PBR varieties. ●

All this is very impressive, but it does not mean that the PBR scheme is beyond improvement. A number of you will be aware that AFFA officials have been working to gain acceptance of a number of amendments to the PBR Act, such as industry "end point" royalty schemes.

The PBR scheme is creating an environment conducive to further investment in plant breeding in Australia, and is delivering benefits for the broader community. Further amendments will enhance this.

Plant biotechnology Today, biotechnology is accelerating change in the seed and agricultural industries worldwide. It represents one of the biggest challenges facing the seed industry, and plant breeders are leaders in the field. It remains a high priority on the Australian Government’s agenda.

The Government’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator ensures that the opportunities of gene technology can be realised, while any risks are properly assessed in an independent and scientific manner.

Biotechnology Australia continues to carry out a comprehensive education program, as well as commissioning regular surveys of community views on biotechnology.

In agriculture, the Bureau of Rural Sciences has undertaken considerable work to provide factual information about the current applications of biotechnology.

Plant industries are keen to take advantage of the opportunities offered by biotechnology to improve productivity, to reduce the use of chemicals, or to produce varieties better suited to consumer needs.

However, the issue of GM crops is a contentious one.

Globally, 40 million hectares of commercial GM crops were grown last year — nearly three-quarters in the United States.

You would be aware that in Australia the only approved GM crops are insect-resistant cotton and 'blue' carnations.

It is not yet clear whether there will be commercial advantage in maintaining a 'GM free' status in approved crops. A recent ABARE report suggests that early adoption of GM crops technology may provide an advantage, but that this advantage may be eroded by the additional costs of segregating GM from non-GM grains.

Tests continue, however, and there does seem to be a broad view among the mainland States that further GM crops may eventually become a reality. However, the Government has stressed the importance of proceeding extremely carefully.

In this regard, I note that a recent New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification concluded just that: 'proceed cautiously'. It did however also emphasise the need for Government and industry to keep its options open.

It would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer, but we should proceed carefully and minimise all risks. A lot of the debate about biotechnology is emotive and often ill informed.

Particular attention needs to be paid to public awareness, and to providing accurate and objective information. It is imperative that there is an informed debate about biotechnology if the results are to be accepted by consumers.

But risks need to be managed, both within the industry through adherence to best practice, and through industry collaboration with trusted agencies. Full consultation with, and disclosure to, the community is vital.

This will ensure widespread understanding of the technology, and give the public an opportunity to participate in the decision-making processes.

Export Market Development Grant Scheme I mentioned earlier that the export market for Australian seed currently comprises only a small proportion of overall seed production.

The Export Market Development Grants (or EMDG) scheme reflects the Government’s intention to have a clear, on-going role in national export growth and investment.

The EMDG scheme has existed for many years, providing grants to Australian-based small and medium-sized businesses in developing export markets.

This includes first-time exporters and those companies considering export activity. The EMDG scheme is non-discretionary and is open to all industry sectors. Under the scheme, businesses are reimbursed up to 50 per cent of their eligible export marketing costs.

Under the EMDG scheme during the past financial year:

a total of $134.6 million was paid to 2,886 companies, including 688 new recipients, at an average of $46,000 a grant; ●

the value of exports generated by grant recipients was estimated at $4.4 billion — an export-to-grant ratio of 34 to 1; and ●

importantly, almost a quarter of all recipients were from rural and regional Australia. ●

Last year, a comprehensive review of the scheme reported that it was a highly effective way of encouraging Australia’s smaller businesses to export. It found that, in one year, for every one dollar granted under the scheme, 12 dollars in additional exports were generated — an estimated $1.69 billion in additional exports for Australia.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Review recommended that the EMDG scheme be extended for another five years. The Government has decided to adopt this and virtually all of the Review’s findings, and to do so through the Export Market Development Grants Amendment Act 2001.

The new Act includes:

a reduction in the minimum expenditure required to access the EMDG scheme to $15,000; ●

inclusion of Professional Conference Organisers (and organisers of similar events) within the eligibility criteria; ●

inclusion of the costs of inward travel by overseas buyers; ● removing the restriction that consultants must be 'short-term only'; and ● broadening of the trade fairs category, to include seminar costs and promotions. ●

Austrade has produced a range of information sources detailing these changes, and I urge those of you with an interest in the export market, and who wish to participate in the scheme, to contact your nearest Austrade office.

Conclusion Ladies and gentlemen, the Coalition Government is proud of the success of the EMDG scheme, just as it is proud of the Plant Breeders Rights scheme.

We will not rest on our laurels, however, and will seek to further build upon those successes.

We will continue to pursue new and improved ways of encouraging innovation in Australia.

We will continue to monitor developments in biotechnology and ensure that Australia’s long-term interests are protected.

We will continue to promote and facilitate the establishment of industry-owned bodies such as the ASA.

And, perhaps most importantly, we will continue to work closely with industries such as yours, to ensure Australia's agricultural sector can meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

I would like to again commend the SIA, and the seed industry as a whole, on its forward thinking in many of these areas. And I urge you to continue your efforts to achieve real progress in the seeds industry.

The Coalition Government looks forward to playing an important role in achieving that progress.

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Last updated 10 September 2001

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