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Thursday, 10 October 1985
Page: 1014


Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(5.05) —We are debating the Horticultural-Plant Variety Rights Bill which has been introduced by Senator Hill. I say without qualification that I support the Bill. My view is that had it been based more exclusively on the report brought down by the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources it would have been a more comprehensive Bill. In fact if the Bill had ranged past the recommendations of that report and included wheat and the like, it would have been strengthened by those provisions. I believe the legislation is long overdue. Australia is one of the few developed economies which lack any form of plant variety rights legislation. Almost all Western European countries, the United States of America, Japan, New Zealand and several South American countries have plant variety rights legislation in place.

Plant variety rights are a system of patents given to new plant varieties developed through cultivation which are used commercially in the agricultural, pastoral and horticultural industries. In essence they work in a similar fashion to the patents that have been available to inventors of new technology and products, although, unlike patents, the right is conferred upon only the end produce and not the process by which it is developed. This legislation will apply only to breeders of new horticultural plant varieties, who may apply to the Registrar of Horticultural Plant Variety Rights established by this Bill for sole ownership of the variety. Where granted, plant variety rights confer exclusive rights to the owner to sell and produce plants and propagating material of plants of that variety. The owner will thus be able to levy and collect royalties from growers purchasing protected varieties in a similar way as owners of copyrights. The scheme will be entirely voluntary and apply only to varieties which are distinctly different from all other varieties which are staple when reproduced over generations.

Plant variety rights are far from being a recent concept. Vegetatively propagated plants were granted such protection in the United States almost 50 years ago. As I have already mentioned, many developed countries have had a plant variety rights system in place for a number of years. In Australia plant variety rights have been the subject of debate for the past 20 years. As Senator Hill pointed out in his second reading speech on 11 October 1984, the former Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Nixon, introduced a plant variety rights Bill in 1981. This was allowed to lie on the table for 12 months to facilitate ample opportunity for public debate before being finally passed by the House of Representatives with amendments. It was subsequently referred by the Senate to the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources, which, after being interrupted by an unfortunate change of government, reported in May 1984 on the need for and the implications of the introduction of a system of plant variety rights in Australia. As a member of that Committee I have a particular interest in this legislation and I find it extremely disappointing that the Government has delayed debating this Bill for almost 12 months despite the Committee's findings that:

After considering the potential advantages and disadvantages of PVR and a number of alternatives, the Committee has concluded that PVR is the most appropriate means of improving access to overseas varieties and stimulating plant breeding in Australia.

This recommendation, in my view, encapsulates the two most compelling arguments for a system of plan variety rights in Australia-the stimulation of plant breeding by Australian private breeders and increased access to overseas varieties, particularly those protected by plant variety rights in other countries. The submission of the National Farmers Federation on plant variety rights to the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources said:

PVR should make possible for the Australian rural sector an input of inventiveness related to plants which the patent system has long made possible for the manufacturing sector by way of products and processes . . . The concept of limited monopoly which both PVR and patents imply is a recognition of the realities of the cost of inventing new plants, products or new processes. Those persons with the requisite skills and capital will not undertake the necessary research and development programmes which make up the process of invention unless, ultimately, it is in their interests to do so. The scope for restricting but not prohibiting access to new inventions makes possible a process of sharing of the costs of invention which allows some reward to the `inventor' for the resources and risks which he has committed to develop this product.

The Bureau of Agricultural Economics has stated:

The main economic premise underlying the proposed introduction of a plant variety rights scheme in Australia is that there are too few resources employed in plant breeding research and development . . . Despite government intervention in plant breeding research and development activities through such organisations as CSIRO, universities and the various State departments responsible for agriculture, expenditure in certain areas of plant breeding research in Australia has been inadequate.

The BAE pointed out that there had been increases in private plant breeding in Denmark, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America since plant variety rights legislation had been introduced to those countries. In 1976 the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders conducted a survey of private organisations involved in plant variety development in the United States. The results were summarised as follows:

There is strong evidence that the commercial soy-bean breeding industry is a direct product of the Plant Variety Protection Act which has resulted in farmers having a greater choice of new and better varieties. There is strong evidence that the Plant Variety Protection Act has stimulated private investment in research. Enactment of the legislation has not only increased the number of firms involved in breeding new varieties but has also resulted in firms with already established breeding programs including other crops.

The report of the Economics and Business Department of North Carolina State University, `Some Effects of the U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970', published in August 1983, confirmed these findings, stating that:

Private research expenditures for breeding (soybeans and cereals) grew from essentially none in 1960 to about $8.5m by 1979. These data, plus comments offered by responding firms, leave little doubt that the Plant Variety Rights Protection Act was effective in stimulating private investment in the breeding of varieties of soybeans, cereals and vegetables.

The report states that, with regard to the impact of soybean breeding, not only did the number of varieties being tested in university-sponsored trials in three States grow from about 30 during the early 1960s to nearly 150 during the late 1970s, but also analysis of the yields of these varieties indicated that during the 1970s new varieties released each year yielded about 0.12 bushels per acre more than varieties released the previous year, whereas there was no trend at all in the yields of new varieties released in successive years prior to 1970. This Bill, of course, relates only to horticultural plant varieties. But overseas experience with plant variety right systems indicates some of the potential benefits which will arise from the enactment of this legislation. In this respect, the comments of Mr J. R. McWilliam from the University of New England's Agronomy and Soil Science Department, in his submission to the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources, inquiry in to PVR are, in my view, particularly pertinent:

In Australia worthwhile plant breeding by public institutions exists only for those cereals and field crops where finance from grower levies is available. In a wide range of other crops, especially promising new crops, vegetables, fruit and ornamentals where no such levies exist, public plant breeding work has either been neglected or never attempted. If successful, these programmes could increase export revenue both from direct sales of seed or propagating material and licensing fees paid by overseas producers for our protected cultivars.

Without plant variety rights there is simply no incentive for private plant breeding in Australia other than hybrid varieties which have an inbuilt protection because their progeny do not grow true to type. Plant breeding is an extremely expensive and lengthy process. A plant breeder, including the necessary equipment and staff, costs an estimated $100,000 per annum to maintain, and new varieties take from five to ten years to develop to the stage of commercial release. I think it is worth quoting a paragraph from a recent letter I received on this subject from the Horticultural Association of South Australia, which I assume was sent to all honourable senators, but, in my view, the contents bear repeating:

It is not nearly so simple to develop new horticultural varieties as it is to design a new machine with a particular desirable performance capability. It has to do with genetic manipulation and genetic combinations are almost limitless. For instance, in strawberry breeding, an ongoing program involving say 40,000 to 80,000 new seedlings per year over ten to twenty years might yield between one and ten new varieties with sufficiently improved characteristics to warrant introduction into commercial fruit production. Such strawberry breeding programmes in California for instance have been in progress for decades at costs measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and to date have given rise to a handful of new varieties considered by Californian strawberry growers as worthy of inclusion in their fruit growing industry. Little wonder that plant breeders very jealously guard their rights to reclaim some of their breeding costs from users of such new plants.

In his submission to the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources' inquiry into PVR, Professor Mullins from the Department of Agromony and Horticultural Science at the University of Sydney stressed the urgent need for the development of new fruit varieties. He said:

The `spray and pray' approach with its risks of toxic residues and damage to the environment, is outmoded and we urgently need new fruit varieties which are genetically resistant to pests and diseases. We need a massive investment in fruit breeding but fruit improvement is among the least favoured areas of government sponsored research because it is long-term, speculative, labour intensive and very costly . . . The prospect of a financial return will provide encouragement for this difficult work in both the public and private sectors.

There is very little government-sponsored vegetable breeding in Australia, apart from that conducted by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, and breeding programs in beans, tomatoes and potatoes conducted by the Victorian Department of Agriculture. In my view it is not without significance that many new vegetable varieties introduced from overseas have limited adaptation to Australian conditions and consequently perform poorly. Vegetable breeding programs in Australia could provide varieties which have the required genetic characteristics to produce economic yields under local conditions and to combat a range of plant diseases which are either unique or are of little economic importance overseas. For example, we have summer death in green beans and lettuce necrotic yellow virus. Submissions to the Committee suggested that plant variety rights would stimulate horticultural breeding in both the public and private sectors and could result in significant crop improvement. Furthermore, greater activity in the breeding of vegetables could also advantage vegetable growers by the adoption of improved technology in such areas as irrigation and harvesting techniques.

A system of plant variety rights would also have the very important effect of enabling Australian horticulturists to have access to overseas plant varieties, which in many cases they do not have at present, in particular to those varieties which are protected by plant variety rights overseas. There is ample evidence that the absence of plant variety rights in Australia has resulted in Australian growers being denied access to overseas varieties, to the detriment of our indigenous growers.

In 1976, the joint working party report on plant variety rights listed a number of plant varieties whose release to Australia had been refused because their overseas owners' rights would not have been protected, including varieties of grapes, rapeseed, ryegrass, cherries, garden beans, apples, peaches, nectarines and apricots. It was expected that this list would continue to grow if Australia did not introduce a PVR scheme and further that Australian rural industries would be disadvantaged by lack of access to many valuable commercial overseas varieties. The Department of Primary Industry's submission to the Committee stated that:

Information gathered in 1982 indicates that access to varieties under PVR overseas is still being denied to Australia. Foreign holders of rights are explicitly refusing to release propagating material for commercial use. Agreement to release material to breeding institutions for scientific purposes, has, in some cases, been only on the condition that no commercial release would result.

Obviously this leaves the Australian horticultural industry struggling under a tremendous disadvantage. On both the domestic and overseas markets suppliers who have the better varieties have a trading advantage. This was graphically illustrated by the Tasmanian Government's submission to the Committee. Tasmania produces something like 5 per cent of Australia's total horticultural output and in its submission the Tasmanian Government pointed out that the maintenance and development of Tasmania's horticultural industries are dependent on their remaining highly competitive in terms of both quality and price. Noting that difficulties had been experienced in gaining access to improved overseas varieties subject to PVR, the submission continued:

Some patented varieties offer major cost advantages due to the ease with which they can be mechanically harvested. Varieties which allow an extension of the season and others which allow the expansion of industries into what were previously considered climatically unsuitable areas also provide economies in production costs.

Without access to these new varieties Australia is falling rapidly behind with the Australian varieties of some species being years behind those available overseas. The Committee heard very considerable evidence that our lack of plant variety rights meant that Australian wine makers could not gain access to new German bred wine varieties of grape. The Borossa Wine Grape Advisory Council pointed out:

These are used in making full flavoured white table wines. It is in the market for these wines that Australian consumption has shown the most dramatic increase in recent times.

Yet these are the varieties to which Australia has been denied access. Clearly there are tremendous potential benefits to be gleaned from the introduction of plant variety rights in Australia. Other countries have clearly seen that advantage and they have received the benefits for many years-benefits which are presently denied to us. It is very unfortunate that this country finds itself so far behind on this matter. In my view this Bill represents our opportunity to catch up and I believe it deserves whole-hearted support. I will be very disappointed if this debate is adjourned because it is politically difficult for the Government. The Government has had this Bill before it, it has had the report from the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources and it has had the 1981 Nixon legislation. There has been more than 20 years debate on this subject in Australia and now, because of an ideological struggle between the Left and the Right of the Australian Labor Party, which was demonstrated in some respects by the division on our Committee in its findings, the Government finds it necessary to side-track this legislation off to another inquiry.


Senator Hill —Yes, the two dissenters were both from the Left.


Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I do not make any judgment about that, but it is true that the two dissenters were from the Left and that the majority of the Committee members brought down a very commendable report. I find it sad that the economy of this country should suffer as a result of political expediency. I trust that the Government will have the courage to deal with this Bill.