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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5553

Senator CHERRY (9:25 PM) —I rise to speak to the Plant Breeder's Rights Amendment Bill 2002, as it is an important bill before the Senate. The purpose of the bill is to clarify the property rights of plant breeders when restrictions on the sale or propagation of new plant varieties are imposed. The bill is underpinned by the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991.

The bill amends the existing Plant Breeder's Rights Act 1994, which established intellectual property rights for plant breeders, giving them the opportunity to commercialise new varieties through the right to disallow specific activities—production, reproduction, conditioning, sale, import, export and stocking—in relation to those plant varieties. The bill amends current section 18, which provides that authorisation from the breeder is not needed for activities that enable propagation of the material for use as food or fuel. The government claims that section 18 is being misused for commercial purposes and that this is contrary to the original intention of the act, which was to provide plant breeders with an opportunity to gain reward for their innovation. The new provision will allow a breeder to exercise their right of authorisation except where the right is restricted by legislation. When such legislation restricts the rights of a breeder, equitable remuneration must be paid to the breeder.

One of the underlying assumptions of the original bill and the amendment bill is that `innovation in plant breeding serves the public interest'. The history of the bill and the subsequent evidence of biopiracy in Australia make it clear that there is a contrary story: innovation in plant breeding should serve the public interest, should provide benefits to the broader Australian community and should not form the basis for corporate control over plants and plant varieties that belong in public hands, that are the product of traditional uses. But it does not always happen.

The Australian Democrats have a long history of concern regarding the original Plant Variety Rights Act. The proposed amendments that follow reflect some of those concerns and some more contemporary issues as well. On behalf of the Democrats, my colleague Senator Ridgeway will be moving to entrench the rights of Indigenous Australians to benefits flowing from native plants under the plant breeders rights scheme. The plant breeders rights scheme has failed to address and prevent one of the biggest issues relating to plants and plant rights in Australia: biopiracy. This scheme allows tests of new varieties to be conducted by employees of the applicant, limits objection to new plant varieties and makes objection difficult and expensive, and fails to provide any rights for Aboriginal communities—even if the plant is originally discovered on their land.

Evidence suggests that many plants are being granted an exclusive right under the act although they are not significantly different from plants discovered in the wild. Four years ago, Australia was cited as having the worst record of any industrialised country for biopiracy, responsible for 80 per cent of the documented cases of dubious plant variety claims by the Canadian based Rural Advancement Foundation. Yet little has changed, and biopiracy, including the patenting of plant learning acquired through generations of Indigenous people, continues. Sometimes the legislation is not properly followed, the tests are not sufficiently stringent or the applicants simply disguise the source of the plant variety.

While Indigenous communities are not the only group affected by this act, their rights and their traditional relationship with the land are being widely ignored in this legislation. The Democrats are proposing amendments that will reduce the chances of biopiracy from Indigenous land and increase the capacity of the Indigenous community to object when biopiracy is occurring. We will also be moving to add Indigenous representation to the advisory committee that provides expert advice to the minister. Currently, Indigenous and conservation interests are not represented on the committee at all. While encouraging innovation and new commercial varieties is fully supported by the Democrats, legislation that gives rights to one group by denying others is not acceptable.

The Democrats will also be moving to insist on full cost-benefit analyses of genetically modified crops before their promoters can obtain a plant breeder's right benefit from them. A major report on genetically modified crops, released last month by Britain's respected Soil Association, has found that the economic benefits are lower and the costs much higher than earlier expected. This report shows that GM crops have cost American producers around $12 billion since 1999 in lower crop prices, loss of major export markets and product recalls. Australian governments need to consider this report's conclusion that GM crops have delivered `few, if any, economic benefits promised to farmers' and would reduce the competitiveness of British agriculture.

Australia, like the US, has been one of the countries most devoted to the introduction of genetically modified crops. This report is only the latest in a series of recent damning and damaging studies into the effects, impacts and dangers of GM crops. Others have included the Australian Grain Harvesters Association expressing deep public concern at the potential costs to their industry of introducing genetically modified crops against the wishes of many farmers who will not want machinery shifting between GM and GM-free farms; and a British medical report on possible health implications of GM crops, including the potential reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight diseases such as meningococcal.

We already know the dangers of GM plants contaminating organic crops and wild species, a danger the Soil Association confirms. We already know that major multinationals are willing to take farmers to court, even if their use of GM plants is accidental—and I will be moving an amendment on that issue later on. The Democrats will be moving to make sure that the full economic costs of genetically modified crops are considered before approvals are given under the plant breeders rights scheme. This is essential because the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, currently considering two applications for genetically modified canola, will only consider scientific issues. The economic aspects of an approval have simply not been considered in the process.

Our approval system also needs to ensure that economic issues are fully considered to ensure that Australia can avoid the mistakes that have been made in North America to the economic cost of US and Canadian farmers. This task appears to have been left to industry bodies. However, the Democrats do not believe this is good enough. The Democrats argue that the key body that will be advising the ministers on the economic aspects of, for example, genetically modified canola, the Gene Technology Grains Committee, is fundamentally flawed and needs restructuring, and indeed is asking the wrong question.

The committee, in seeking to establish the lowest cost, lowest risk segregated industry framework to deal with GM and GM-free grains, has failed to ask the key question of whether separate systems are viable or could ever be cost effective in comparison with the alternative of no system at all. This is not surprising, given that six of the committee's members represent multinational agribusiness proponents of GM crops, including Monsanto and Aventis, who currently have applications for commercial release of GM canola lodged with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. It would be a serious public policy failure if state governments acted on the advice of an `expert' committee that was so clearly stacked in favour of a pro-GM point of view.

Key export markets like the European Union reject GM--free produce with contamination rates as low as one per cent. It will be impossible, or prohibitively expensive, to maintain fully separate cultivation, harvesting and grain-handling facilities to eliminate the risk of contamination. The Gene Technology Grains Committee draft framework concedes this, committing only to `work to prevent' unintended mixing of GM grains rather than the elimination of such risk. The framework also makes it clear that:

... participants in one supply chain are responsible for implementing measures that prevent their activities from unduly interfering in the operation of another supply chain.

This appears to imply that GM-free farmers will be expected to bear much of the cost of keeping their farms GM free rather than the proponents of GM crops bearing that burden. The costs of separate farming systems for GM and GM--free crops has been estimated by European Union researchers as the equivalent of one to 10 per cent of the harvest returns. It is for these reasons that the Democrats believe Australia needs to conduct a full cost-benefit analysis before approving any GM crops for commercial release.

In conclusion, this debate will be an important debate for the Senate. With the Gene Technology Regulator's approval of genetically modified canola only months away, these amendments are essential to ensure that the approval process deals with economic as well as environmental and scientific concerns. Similarly, the amendments to do with the rights of Indigenous people are essential to avoid major problems in the current plant breeders rights scheme getting considerably worse in the area of biopiracy.