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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 166

Senator Milne asked the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, upon notice, on 7 November 2008:

(1)   Are the Commonwealth Government, state governments and the agricultural industry cooperating to establish a national system for managing our agricultural plant genetic resources; if so, what policy mechanisms, funding arrangements and strategic goals (including time frames) are in place that binds each party to ongoing cooperation.

(2)   Is there a national guideline in place in regard to protecting and utilising Australian agricultural plant genetic resources; if so, what is the content of that guideline, and how and over what period of time will it be implemented.

(3)   Given that 16 reviews have been undertaken since 1992 into Australian agricultural plant genetic resources, what are the impediments to any national progress that required continuous review, and what steps is/will the Commonwealth Government take to remove all impediments to national progress.

(4)   Exactly how is Australia to meet and/or in what manner is Australia actually meeting its legally binding obligation under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to conserve globally-significant collections of plant genetic resources.

(5)   What are the Commonwealth Government’s short-, medium- and long-term plans for Australia’s collection of globally-unique agricultural plant genetic resources.

(6)   Which collection of plant genetic resources, including those managed by the states, have been placed under the auspices of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and which collections are therefore available to other countries to access under the treaty’s multilateral system for sharing and access.

(7)   Have the Commonwealth and state governments clarified the intellectual property status of indigenous wild plant species of citrus, mung bean, rice, and sorghum that are listed in the international treaty; if so, what process was used to achieve clarification and what are the implications of such status.

(8)   Which countries have approached the Australian Government over the past 16 years and/or are seeking access to Australia’s agricultural plant genetic resources.

(9)   Given that many indigenous wild plant species such as citrus, mung bean, rice and sorghum possess unique attributes of drought tolerance to changing climatic conditions, disease and pest resistance to combat changes in climate, provide nutritional quality for a more healthy diet, and may contain valuable new genes, what is the optimal use and best market for such species.

Senator Sherry (Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law) —The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has provided the following answer to the honourable senator’s question:

(1)   Yes—Following consideration of approaches relating to the formation of a National Genetics Resources Centre (NGRC), the Industries Development Committee (IDC) of the Primary Industries Standing Committee (PISC), at its last meeting (December 2008), referred the issue of nationally managing our agricultural plant genetic resources to the Primary Industries Ministerial Council (PIMC). This issue is to be considered within the context of the National Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) Framework (a collaborative effort involving the agricultural industry, state and Commonwealth governments). This was further to agreement at PIMC 10 (April 2006) to recommendations in relation to strategic goals for a NGRC and endorsement at PIMC 11 (November 2006) of an NGRC Statement of Strategic Intent. A broad approach to funding was agreed to in 2007 by the PISC and specific funding arrangements and timeframes for the NGRC are matters requiring further consideration. All Australian and State/Territory (and New Zealand) government ministers responsible for agriculture, food, fibre, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture industries/production and rural adjustment policy are members of the PIMC, and its operational arrangements are consistent with the Protocols and General Principles for the Operation of Ministerial Councils agreed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in June 2001.

(2)   There is no formal national guideline. A national policy on genetic resources is being progressed through PIMC and PISC.

(3)   Following Australia’s signing of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2002 and ratification of the Treaty in 2005, in November 2005, the then Australian Government announced that the National Genetics Resources Centre (NGRC) would be set up to coordinate Australian-based collections and to improve their content and long-term efficiency. The establishment of the NGRC is being progressed by the PISC, reporting to the PIMC.

(4)   The major Australian ex situ collections of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) are managed by the states. These collections are largely organised around the major crops and pastures grown in Australia. The Australian Winter Cereals Collection at Tamworth holds large numbers of accessions (an individual sample of seeds or plants entered into a collection) of winter cereals such as wheat, barley and oats. The Australian Tropical Crops and Forages Collection in Biloela, houses large numbers of tropical crops and forages including sorghum, rice and mungbean. The other major seed banks are: the Australian Trifolium Genetic Resources Centre in Perth; the Australian Temperate Field Crop Collection in Horsham; and the Australian Medicago Genetic Resources Centre in Adelaide. There are other collections of PGRFA some of which hold accessions of Australian native species such those belonging to the citrus family. The institutions catalogue and administer the scientific study of the material. These institutions underpin most plant improvement and new variety development by Australian plant breeders, including for the adaptation of crops and pastures to significant challenges such as climate change by regularly supplying essential genetic resources in the form of seeds. Programs to maintain the viability of the collections are central to the work and service delivery of institutions that hold resources as seeds. Institutions conduct on-site pest management and deposit samples of accessions in off-site back up facilities to manage threats to the collection from fire or other catastrophic event. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) provides systems to protect any native PGRFA should it become threatened in situ. These collections will form the basis of any material placed into the multilateral system (MLS) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty) and their maintenance and documentation status will facilitate their effective integration into it. The PIMC is considering arrangements for the formation of the NGRC which is expected to deliver the necessary mechanisms to deal effectively with the requirements of the Treaty.

(5)   The PISC IDC has referred progression of the NGRC to PIMC for consideration under the National RD&E Framework.

(6)   The state collections of relevant PGRFA have not been placed under the auspices of the Treaty. The Commonwealth does not have any relevant collections. The formation of the NGRC is expected to provide a national focal point for Australia’s plant genetic resource collections and a means to allow facilitated access through the MLS of the Treaty to the collections and associated information.

(7)   Intellectual Property (IP) can be an invention, trade mark, original design or the practical application of a good idea. Confidential information (also referred to as trade secrets), patents, registered designs, trade marks, copyright, circuit layout rights and plant breeder's rights (PBR) are all legally classified as IP rights. The type of IP rights applied to plant genetic resources are most likely to be patents and PBR. In both cases, these IP rights need to be actively sought, are not automatic and any rights granted are restricted to the national jurisdiction in which they were granted. For these reasons, the Commonwealth or the states can not clarify, a priori, the IP status of indigenous wild species of citrus, mungbean, rice and sorghum.

(8)   Officially, no governments of countries have approached the Australian Government over the past 16 years seeking access to Australia’s agricultural plant genetic resources. However, Australia’s state-run plant genetic resources centres holding PGRFA have received many thousands of applications for access to material directly from plant breeders and private and/or public agricultural institutions overseas.

(9)   Optimal use and markets for wild plant species are determined by a range of interacting stakeholders, such as researchers, plant breeders, R&D decision-makers, farmers, and commercial markets. As such, it is a complex issue with no single optimum. Native plants have significant potential as a source of useful traits to help farmers meet the challenges of climate change, pests and disease, sustainability, and improved nutrition. Such genetic resources need to be accessible and further explored for the development of new varieties for agriculture.