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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6627

Senator CHERRY (5:35 PM) —I would like to respond very briefly to some of the points made by Senator O'Brien before the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry responds. The notion of fees is a very important one in terms of the Plant Breeders Rights Scheme in getting the public interest assessed. As has been pointed out in the debate, the Heritage Seed Curators Association have done quite a bit of work in this area. In 1998 they did a major report on the whole issue of the Plant Breeders Rights Scheme in Australia. They identified 118 cases relating to Australian breeders which were dubious and possible cases of biopiracy from the international perspective. It is interesting that, in February 1998, the HSCA notified the Australian minister of the scope of this particular scandal. The then executive director, Mr Bill Hankin, said:

But when we asked him to take over the investigation, we were informed that we would have to pay several hundred dollars in government service charges for each variety! The total cost would run to about $60,000—and this doesn't include legal fees. Voluntary, not-for-profit organizations can't afford to pay governments to do their job ... We've shown that systematic abuses are taking place and that plant patents are predatory on breeding work undertaken by farmers and indigenous peoples around the world. If the relevant authorities in the countries where the abuses are occurring won't act responsibly, we'll go to the governments of the farmers who are being ripped off.

The Democrats are quite concerned about those sorts of figures to simply get a public interest assessment going as to possible plant breeders rights abuses. That is why we have moved these amendments today. When you are dealing with the public interest, whilst the onus of developing information should obviously be in the community group raising that issue, we think that it should not require fundraising to the tune of $60,000 to require that these matters be investigated. That is an extraordinary ask in an area that is of increasing concern. AID/WATCH, a well-known community group in Australia, produced a report on biopiracy only this year, very recently. In the conclusion of that report it is stated:

There is a pernicious process of accelerated genetic erosion threatening food security for the world's poorest people, the genetic engineering and patenting of living organisms by transnational corporations. A system of open information and research channels once existed worldwide between public plant breeding institutions which extended right down to the small subsistence farmer. This system is now a serious of privatised research institutions, gene banks and corporate owned genes linked to licensed use by the privileged few. The process of dispossessing traditional communities from the care of, breeding and use of genetic resources has continued despite the widespread recognition that this has greatly contributed to the erosion of biodiversity.

I am pleased that Senator O'Brien did note the concerns about the issue of Indigenous rights and intellectual property rights in this area but, unless we ensure that the public interest can be identified, prosecuted and protected through the system that operates at the moment, we are not going to be able to ensure that these areas are adequately protected and enhanced, and our system will leave itself open to abuses into the future.