Farmers' group questions seed royalties

The Australian Seed Federation (ASF) and NSW Farmers" Association (NSWFA) are at loggerheads over the association"s call for a review of the Plant Breeder"s Rights Act.

The NSW Farmers" Association annual conference has called for the Act to be reviewed because of concerns that improved new varieties are not becoming available in the necessary volumes.

However, ASF chief executive officer Chris Melham says another review is the last thing the industry needs: "We had a thorough review in 2002 involving consultation from the grains industry, including the Grains Council of Australia (GCA) - of which the NSWFA is a member," he says.

"The Act works efficiently for plant breeders, farmers and distributors. It costs $1 million and 10 years for a new grain variety to be commercialised - the seed companies which make that investment are within their rights to ask for a return on it."

Former GCA president Keith Perrett, a member of the association"s grains committee, says farmers have numerous worries about Plant Breeder"s Rights - from the growing royalties to be paid on delivery through to the tight control of commercial licensing.

"New varieties are coming out which offer many benefits to growers, but when it comes time to plant them, there just isn"t the volume around," he says.

"If it is a good, new early-season variety and there is an early break, that variety quickly disappears, because they just don"t hold the quantities to get it out there to the growers.

"At the same time, there are people who have it and would like to sell it, but they can"t because the seed companies have a strict commercialisation process. Yet they themselves don"t want to take the risk of cleaning, treating and storing seed which might not be needed - well, spread the risk and allow others to take it on."

Mr Perrett says the objective of any review should be to ensure that good research and development occurs through the enforcement of the Act.

"Farmers are happy to make an investment in research and development three times - through levies, the purchase of seed and endpoint royalties - and we will be happy to do that if there is a good return on our investment.

"It is when it gets too high we start to question it. Royalties are up to $2 a tonne - that"s high when we don"t have grain prices to match."

Mr Melham wants the NSWFA to educate its members on the value of using commercial seed contracts and paying royalties: "There is little point in attacking the Act when farmers know they often only have to buy the commercial seed the first year and then bulk up their own supply in the years after, as well as supplying the neighbour, without any royalties being paid," he says.

"The issue is not with the Act but the commercialisation, and they should take that up with the companies involved."

The ASF recently announced it was developing an intellectual property database that will list all varieties by IP, royalty collection method and contact person.

A special supplement on Plant Breeder"s Rights will be published with the December issue of Ground Cover.