Sunday, July 3, 2022

Opinion – Time to walk the talk

The Kim Dotcom saga (concerning copyright and piracy of movies and music) may seem a world removed from the seed business, but it does serve as a glaring reminder that there is huge value tied up in the intellectual property (IP) of any industry, no matter what type of goods are being produced. Seed is no exception.

Recently, the Government modernised our trademark laws to enable exporters to register their trademarked brands in a more efficient and cost effective manner and – equally importantly – gain easier protection of their IP.

Likewise, our national patent laws are being updated to ensure they provide adequate incentives for continued innovation and technology transfer.

The Government is also working with other countries to conclude negotiations under the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) on a range of intellectual property right areas including parallel imports and copyright.

Unfortunately, against this backdrop of significant law changes and agreements to safeguard and significantly boost New Zealand entrepreneurs and traders, the interests of holders of intellectual property rights of plant varieties remain stalled and out of date.

In 1991, NZ signed the global Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). We also signalled our intention to ratify UPOV by amending our plant variety laws. Fourteen years later, those amendments have yet to be made. The NZ seed industry remains unprotected by the latest UPOV rules.

Our Government meantime vigorously encourages Kiwi industry to invest in more innovation and research capacity for the greater good of NZ Inc.

The work of NZ plant breeders very much aligns with the Government’s national vision of an innovation-led economy, and our outputs are arguably the linchpin for the entire NZ pastoral sector. Every year, our breeders develop various grass and clover varieties which are sown by farmers; the grass is eaten by animals to produce meat, wool and milk, which in turns feeds and clothes New Zealanders and the world.

Developing plant varieties suitable for commercial and world-leading results can take many years, especially compared with other types of R&D. Some projects have long lead times and breeders may have to wait 10 to 12 years for significant progress.

That is why it is so important for the Government to understand and acknowledge that the plant breeding industry is only seeking legal certainty and protection of their IP on proprietary seed brands that is commensurate with the work involved to produce them in the first place. Almost without exception, these are brands that have been costly to develop in terms of investment in money, time and other resources.

Countries worldwide, including our key trading partners, can see the economic benefits of ratification of UPOV91 for their plant breeders; we see no reason why NZ seed industry members should be kept waiting any longer.

For international trade compliance, IP policy consistency, and to encourage innovation and new technical advances, the Government needs to act now. Officials should be directed to crack on and promulgate the appropriate regulations. Bringing to market the best available seed for farmers to grow can increase productivity, promote diversification, reduce costs, lift export growth and benefit growers and NZ as a whole. 

  • Immediate gains from ratifying UPOV91:
  • Aligns with our key trading partners such as Australia, Japan, the UK and the US
  • Gives seed breeders added legal certainty and strong protection
  • Encourages seed breeders to further innovate and develop new and improved seed varieties for NZ farmers. 

Thomas Chin is General Manager of the New Zealand Grain and Seed Trade Association and New Zealand Plant Breeding and Research Association.

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