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Thursday, 10 October 1985
Page: 1000

Senator WATSON(3.52) —I commend my colleague Senator Hill on his initiative in bringing forward this private member's Bill on horticultural plant variety rights. Unfortunately, the Horticultural-Plant Variety Rights Bill 1984 [1985] is fairly restricted. It differs greatly from the Bill which was presented to the Senate several years ago by a then Liberal Government because today's Bill covers only horticulture-products such as fruit, vegetables and ornamentals. We have before us an amendment to be moved by the Australian Democrats attempting to further restrict the application of the Bill. I must acknowledge that I can see a minor problem with the Bill in that I believe that there is a lack of definition of horticulture as such. I think this is intentional because horticulture is both a generic and a scientific term. However, that must raise some questions as to the Bill's coverage, particularly at the margin. For example, of whether an item is a horticultural or a field crop type variety. My colleague Senator Hill, I believe, will be able to advise the Senate adequately of the reasons for this approach.

I, together with others, have received hundreds of letters-many of which have emanated from South Australia, Senator Hill's State, supporting the establishment of a Commonwealth-wide scheme for plant variety rights in relation to horticulture. The Senate Standing Committee on National Resources concluded that plant variety rights was the most appropriate means of bringing access to overseas varieties and stimulating plant breeding in Australia. Unfortunately, plant variety rights is yet another blind spot in the Labor Government's attitude towards Australian agriculture. The benefits are quite clear, yet the Government continues to procrastinate on this important issue. I remind the Senate that I do not believe the issue to be entirely dead, even within the Australian Labor Party. I understand that in July of this year the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, in taking note of the views expressed by the two dissenting Labor Party senators-in the senate report of May 1984, appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, Professor Alec Lazenby, a noted agriculturalist, to investigate plant breeding needs in Australia.

I believe that the Government owes us an explanation as to the inquiry's terms of reference. They appeared to be fairly restrictive, according to what was reported in the Australian Financial Review in July this year. However, I am led to believe that the inquiry is well under way, with Professor Lazenby and his advisers already meeting interested groups in most States. Although two Labor senators on the Senate Committee's inquiry presented a dissenting report, even they recommended that a plant variety rights scheme be implemented to cover ornamentals. Therefore, this Bill should fit very neatly their needs and I would expect unanimous support around the chamber, including from the Democrats, for this important Bill introduced by my colleague Senator Hill.

Unfortunately, much of the Opposition to plant variety rights appears to centre on the need for merit testing. Given the very significant differences in climate around Australia and the great variety of soil types and structures, merit testing might not always provide the sort of protection the promoters seek. Clause 24 of Senator Hill's Bill provides for test growing of plant varieties in circumstances where, on receipt of the application, the secretary could consider it necessary that there should be a test growing or a further test growing for the purpose of determining homogeneity or whether the variety grown in Australia would have particular characteristics. That should surely satisfy most of the doubting Thomases.

Today's Bill will establish procedures to collect royalties on the sale of new plant varieties they develop which have the PVR required characteristics of uniformity, stability, homogeneity, and so on. Plant variety rights as such differ from patent rights in that the right is conferred only on the end product and not on the process by which it is produced. PVR legislation enables individuals, companies or institutions to gain property rights over propagating materials, seed cuttings, root stocks et cetera and provides the owner with the legal right to exclude others from selling seeds of that variety, reproducing them, except for their own use, and importing or exporting the product. A registered variety may be used freely for research purposes and can be sold or ownership transferred to another person, company or institution, as with other forms of property. To be registered, a variety must have been orginated by a person and not merely discovered and must be distinct from known varieties, uniform in population and stable over repeated generations. The horticultural PVR Bill embodies all these concepts, which is welcomed.

Although there is a claim that PVR could raise the cost of certain seeds, I believe that, generally, buyers are very conscious, in making their acquisitions, of what we might term a cost-benefit analysis in that they will not purchase these seeds unless they produce significantly greater yields than other seeds. Much has also been said about multinational companies operating in this area acquiring a stranglehold in Third World countries. But most Third World countries do not have PVR. Further, most seeds sold by multinational operations to the Third World would result in increased productivity, which surely provides a benefit to all concerned. A matter of some criticism of plant variety rights is that they can also lead to genetic erosion in Third World countries. However, Australia imports only very small samples of Third World varieties for development in Australia.

I digress to consider some of the wider issues. Although not covered by this Bill, broad acre crops, pastures, wheat and so on are also important to Australia. In the context of the erosion of the genetic base I mention that the Australian wheat collection in Tamworth amounts to some 20,000 varieties and it is increasing all the time. Furthermore the Australian Agricultural Council has examined proposals for genetic banks to maintain genetic resourses in Australia and I think that sort of argument refutes all the doubts arising in this area.

A further concern of the anti-PVR lobby is the fear that the large corporations will breed varieties with a very high level of chemical dependency, thereby raising the costs for farmers. Such an argument ignores the relativity that it is far more cost effective to build in disease resistance to varieties than to undertake expensive testing of chemicals required before marketing. This ability to build in disease resistance is one of the very important features which could be afforded to Australian producers as a result of a proper plant variety rights scheme. The fear of the multinationals buying out the seed firms overlooks the fact that there are very few major Australian-owned seed firms. I suppose that the major exception would be Yates, but even that passed under the control of Cheetham Salt the other day. Most smaller firms operating in Australia seem to be able to co-exist alongside the multinationals. I raise those matters because I believe the answers that I have provided well and truly squash the arguments that our opponents are likely to raise against this Bill.

Most developed countries, including Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Mexico and Israel, have instituted statutory rights for plant breeders. In fact, a plant variety rights Act was passed in New Zealand way back in 1973 and the following decade has seen a 500 per cent increase in private investment in plant breeding for that country giving access to new plant varieties which are developed overseas. Those figures spell volumes for the need for plant variety rights and, coming from Tasmania, I wholeheartedly support the need for such a measure. New Zealand has seen a continuing expansion in commercial plant breeding and this has given a boost to its export seed trade as well as bringing in royalties from the cultivars market overseas. It has resulted in increased co-operation between farmers, the commercial seed trade and the Government.

Currently private breeding here in Australia is largely based on hybrid varieties which, by virtue of their characteristics, have an in-built protection. Breeding schemes for open-pollinated crops, such as wheat, are conducted largely through levies paid by the growers and in the public sector. Unfortunately in a wide range of crops and vegetables such levies do not exist and, also, public plant breeding programs have been neglected. This is one of the main concerns that we have in Tasmania, as our State is a major horticultural producer. At the same time, Australian growers have been hampered in that they have been denied access to varieties of fruit and vegetables that have been available overseas for years. In the absence of PVR legislation, vegetable seed companies have been forced to turn to hybrid seeds in order to protect their interests.

Furthermore, important new varieties are being denied to Australian growers and, according to Mr Hugh Bishop of the South Australian Fruit Growers Market Gardeners Association Incorporated, it is clear that overseas institutions are adopting a far tougher stand to the extent that even the entry of material for research and evaluation has now been denied to us. That is an opinion from your own State, Madam Acting Deputy President. We are losing our competitiveness in both domestic and overseas markets by not being able to adapt to meet changing market demands and this is having a devastating effect on fruit and vegetable growers.

To illustrate the problems associated with the lack of PVR legislation, I would like to remind the Senate about the problems facing Tasmanian pea growers. Pea growers are facing disastrous price reductions of up to 30 per cent for the 1985-86 season. In real terms, the reduction means cuts of more than 50 per cent in the profits from pea crops and thousands of tonnes of peas being ploughed back into the rich Tasmanian soil. Pea growers blame the reduction in profit and acreage on imports of cheap peas, particularly from New Zealand. To add to this, most of the seeds used by Edgells are bred in New Zealand and imported into Australia. Growers have no option but to use these seeds. New Zealand has PVR, of course, and we do not.

The gross value of all vegetable production each year in our small State of Tasmania is close to $60m; so it is absolutely vital that these industries remain competitive and viable. Professor M. G. Mullins, Professor of Horticulture at the University of Sydney, has spoken of several new varieties of fruit being available in the United States that would greatly benefit growers in Australia. These include self-compatible cherries, genetic dwarf peaches and new grape varieties, including some high quality seedless table grapes. In addition, there are new varieties of grapes from Germany, cherries from the United Kingdom and garden beans, strawberries, pome fruits, peaches, nectarines and apricots from the United States that are being refused to growers in Australia because the owners of the new highly marketable varieties would have no protection as we have no PVR legislation.

To accentuate the problem, fruit and vegetable improvement is among the least favoured areas of government-sponsored research because it is long term, speculative, labour intensive and therefore costly. The few varieties of fruit and vegetables that have been introduced into Australia recently have not lived up to expectations, being neither suited to our different climatic conditions nor able to resist plant pests and diseases as well as the locally developed varieties. For Australia to maintain and develop its horticultural industries it must invest massive amounts of capital, expertise and energy into its own plant breeding programs. However, Commonwealth funds for breeding and research have declined markedly since 1976-77. This also came out in the separate report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources.

We have failed in the past to prepare for the future. In so many industries throughout this country we have ceased to be competitive on both the domestic and overseas markets. Some manufacturers have only themselves to blame for not keeping up with changes in technology. The dairy and sugar industries have fought and lost the battle, at least for the moment, with heavily subsidised dumped products from the European Economic Community. Lobbying for a plant variety rights scheme in Australia was initiated in the early 1970s. However, horticulturists have been sold short by successive governments' inaction on PVR legislation. Such legislation would allow them access to new and improved varieties of plants from overseas which would encourage the private sector to become much more active in plant breeding.

The costs involved in plant breeding are considerable, as I mentioned earlier. A lack of private breeding in open-pollinated groups due to high costs has been cited as costing not less than $100,000. Unfortunately, with PVR the breeder loses control of the plant production after its first commercial release. The cost factor plus the loss of capital are seen as significant disincentives for private plant breeding and the Australian economy will therefore be the loser. I believe quite firmly that the evidence in favour of PVR is irrefutable. This new Bill, although it is based on 1982 legislation, and is restrictive in character in that it relates only to horticulture, incorporates many of the relevant recommendations of the report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources. It has the full backing of the horticultural industry. I would commend the Bill to the Senate.