Key players in the European seed sector have joined forces to urge the EU Commission to improve the bloc’s intellectual property laws and mechanisms and enable an effective plant breeding sector. But there are fears that this may negatively impact small and medium-sized farmers.
In a letter sent to the Commission’s DG SANTE on Wednesday (26 August), four agricultural organisations – Euroseeds, Plantum, CIOPORA and AIPH – called on the executive to review the Council regulation on the protection of community plant variety rights (CPVRs).
This was prompted by the omission of CPVRs from the EU intellectual property (IP) roadmap by DG Growth, the Commission Directorate responsible for IP rights. The roadmap outlines plans for the improvement of IP protection laws and mechanisms in the EU, promoting its smarter use, better enforcement and fair play globally for IP.
The adoption of the plan is scheduled for the third quarter of 2020.
IP rights include patents, copyrights and trademarks, and are designed to enable businesses to protect their inventions and creations to better compete around the world.
Describing the importance of these rights on the IP action plan page, the Commission states that the EU “needs to better protect and manage IP if it is to assume leadership in key industrial areas and improve resilience to health and economic crises, while moving towards a greener, more digital economy”.
In a statement issued online alongside the letter, Euroseeds stressed that an effective plant breeding sector is “essential for a variety of societal goals such as improving sustainable production systems and consumer qualities of agricultural and horticultural products.”
It added that the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies will “not deliver their goals without plant breeding”.
“Breeders need an effective IP system in order to continue to invest in this important work. It is of utmost importance for breeders and growers that the EU Plant Variety Rights system is robust and effective,” the statement emphasised.
The four organisations argue that the 25-year-old CPVR system currently in place lags behind the latest developments in global agriculture, horticulture and plant breeding technologies, pointing to the final report of the evaluation of the CPVR Acquis published in 2011, which requested an improvement of the basic regulation.
However, no legislative actions have been taken since.
The four organisations, together with the German and Spanish national seed associations and nearly 20 individual breeding companies, have highlighted the issue in their responses to the public consultation of the IP roadmap.
In their response, biotech industry group Europabio highlighted that life sciences and biotechnology drive strategic innovations in both health and agri-food sectors, stressing that these innovations “would not be without a robust IP framework to encourage investments in high-risk research and diversified product development”.
“Maintaining the criticality of IP for innovation requires policy coherence,” they added.
But Dr Mohammad Torshizi, a lecturer at the department of resource economics and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta, cautioned that while IP rights bring innovations, they can also carry “economic implications”.
Speaking at a conference in February, Torshizi drew on lessons learned from across the pond in Canada and the US, warning that stronger IP rights over seeds can concentrate market power, which in turn can dictate production decisions to farmers through contracts and lead to higher prices.
From the viewpoint of farmers, small and medium-sized seed companies, and maybe the public, “it is imperative to keep ownership of the seed,” he said.
Likewise, Guy Kastler, a peasant farmer and member of the farmers association European Coordination of Via Campesina seeds working group, told EURACTIV that in order to cope with today’s agricultural challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss and the need to reduce the use of pesticides, farmers must be able to reuse and select their seeds so they can adapt them to local conditions.
However, he stressed that the current Council regulation “prohibits or limits farmers’ rights to produce their own seeds and seedlings” and that these prohibitions and limitations should be removed. He added that this “in no way limits the use of companies’ seed selections”.
“Unfortunately, concentration in the seed industry increasingly restricts the diversity of commercial supply, unlike millions of peasants who each select the seeds and plants best adapted to their differing terrain,” he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]