What the World Can Learn From Canada’s Approach to UPOV

Canada’s plant breeders rights commissioner talks to our European sister publication about how our country has benefited from its ratification of UPOV 91.

Since 1961, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) has been the governing body when it comes to providing and promoting an effective system of plant variety protection worldwide. Its aim is a simple and straightforward one — to encourage the development of new varieties of plants for the benefit of society.

The UPOV Convention has been routinely updated to reflect the technological developments in plant breeding, the latest update coming in 1991. Anthony Parker, commissioner for the Plant Breeders’ Rights Office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, tells us what ratifying UPOV 91 has meant for Canada’s breeders, farmers and the public.

European Seed (ES): Why was it important for Canada to join UPOV?

Anthony Parker (AP): In Canada, the agriculture sector is a key driver of economic growth and prosperity. It was important for Canada to implement a domestic Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act and join UPOV in order to foster increased investment and innovation in domestic plant breeding. Strengthening our intellectual property protection framework for plant varieties also gave foreign plant breeders greater confidence to release their new varieties in Canada. The net benefit is that Canadian farmers could now access more new and innovative plant varieties with improved characteristics (yield, quality, disease resistance), allowing them to be more competitive in a global marketplace.

ES: In 2015, Canada joined the UPOV Convention of 1991. What were the main reasons for adopting this latest version?

AP: When Canada joined UPOV in 1991, we became a contracting party to the 1978 Act of the UPOV Convention. Canada’s UPOV 78-based PBR Actwas very successful in supporting domestic breeding programs (public and private), and attracting new plant varieties into Canada from other countries. However, over time it became evident that our intellectual property framework was no longer strong enough to attract the same levels of investment and access to new genetics as observed with our key trading partners (United States, European Union, Japan, Australia and South Korea) who were party to UPOV 91. The Canadian government conducted extensive consultations with our stakeholder community, including farmers, breeders and the seed trade, and concluded that there was strong support to move to UPOV 91.

ES: Once you joined UPOV 91, which were the main changes that you noticed in Canada?

AP: Immediately after joining UPOV 91 we noticed fairly significant changes. More breeding companies were interested in Canada, both in terms of investing and releasing new varieties into the Canadian marketplace. Limagrain, the fourth largest seed company globally, set up a cereal breeding station in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They have been very open in communicating that this would have never happened if Canada had remained in UPOV 78. Bayer (since transitioning their seed business to BASF) also opened a wheat breeding program in Pike Lake, Saskatchewan, as a result of the more positive business environment stemming from UPOV 91 implementation. In other sectors such as fruit crops and vegetables, farmers are witnessing greater access to new varieties that were bred in other countries.

ES: The joining of UPOV 91 also led to a shift in investments in certain crops. Can you share some details on that?

AP: The most dramatic shift in investment was witnessed in the agriculture sector. The Canadian Seed Trade Association, in their five-year research and development survey spanning 2012 to 2017, reported a 51 per cent increase in investment (CDN$71 million), largely attributed to UPOV 91. We are seeing greater interest not to just to invest in major crop types such as wheat, but also minor crops such as hemp and pulses.

ES: What about applications for new crop types? Did you see any changes there?

AP: The moment UPOV 91 amendments were tabled in the Canadian Parliament, applications for certain crop types increased immediately. Before UPOV 91, on average the PBR office would see about 23 applications for new potato varieties annually. Since adoption of UPOV 91 we see on average 36, representing a 57 per cent increase. Roughly 80 per cent of new potato varieties coming into the Canadian market are from foreign breeders, largely European Union member countries and the United States. Similarly, fruit and vegetable applications have also spiked. Prior to UPOV 91 our PBR office would receive on average 24 new applications for fruit and vegetable crops annually. This has now doubled to an average of 49. The number of applications for agriculture crops has also increased. While Canada was at UPOV 78 we averaged 93 applications for agriculture varieties annually. With the adoption of UPOV 91 the average is now 135, representing a 45 per cent increase. However, not all crop kinds have been increasing. In fact, since 2005 Canada has been observing a decline in the number of ornamental varieties seeking protection. The adoption of UPOV 91 did stop the decline of applications, and we are now at a steady state level with no observable growth. It should be noted that internationally the number of ornamental PBR titles have been declining slightly, and the effects could be exasperated in small markets such as Canada.

ES: Do you think the absence of plant breeders’ rights in a country provides a barrier to seed sector growth?

AP: Intellectual property rights play a critical role in advancing innovation and driving economic growth. Strong, robust and harmonized intellectual property rules provide innovators (breeders) with the confidence to make long term investments in research and development, and to release their innovations into the marketplace. Research and development dollars are attracted to business environments with strong, stable and predictable intellectual property rights. The absence of such rules creates risks and uncertainty. In my opinion, it is very difficult to develop a vibrant, diverse and prosperous seed sector without strong plant breeders’ rights.

ES: Do seed companies sell more or different varieties once effective plant breeders’ rules are in place?

AP: Yes, we have witnessed this firsthand. Since the move to UPOV 91 the diversity of crop types seeking PBR protection has increased, and generally the number of varieties within those crop kinds has also increased as well (ornamental species being the exemption).

ES: What would you like to recommend to other countries that are not yet member of UPOV?

AP: If countries are interested in developing their agriculture and horticulture sectors, UPOV membership is key component. Strong UPOV-based intellectual property rights and being part of a harmonized framework internationally, encourages investment in plant breeding and the release of new varieties into the marketplace. Canada has observed this first hand with the implementation of a UPOV 78-based PBR law, and then again with strengthened UPOV 91 amendments in 2015.

ES: Which barriers are countries facing in the implementation of plant breeders’ rights legislation?

AP: Unfortunately, many countries are faced with staunch resistance from anti-intellectual property activists. These groups often frame the discussion around a zero-sum proposition. If someone gains, then logically someone else must lose! These false narratives often come in the form of disinformation or “myth-information” intended to create controversy, with the ultimate objective of stalling any progress to strengthen intellectual property laws. We have firsthand experience dealing with these false narratives: “IP only benefits large trans-national organizations; IP reduces genetic diversity; if breeders win, then farmers must lose.” Of course, the truth is very different from the fictional tale being spun. Strong, fair and balanced PBR creates greater opportunity for everyone, including breeders (public and private), farmers and consumers. In Canada today, the single largest users of PBR in the agriculture sector are public breeding institutions (federal government and agriculture universities), not large multinationals. The greatest growth in PBR use has been from small- and medium-size businesses. In our experience, PBR protection is directly linked to greater crop and varietal diversity.

ES: What would it take to overcome these barriers?

AP: Countries need to see past the false rhetoric and base decision making on facts and evidence. Observe the changes that have occurred in UPOV member countries and consider how they can be applied in their own context. Consult broadly with stakeholders, including farmers, breeders and the public. Develop a strategy outlining the goals for the agriculture and horticulture sectors, including the important role PBR can play in supporting greater investment, innovation, and economic growth. Lastly, reach out to seek advice and assistance from others. There is a large community of UPOV members who are willing to share their insights, experiences and lessons learned.

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