Plant variety key to agri future

As the world continues to cope with the ongoing stresses of the COVID 19 pandemic, it is important not to lose sight of the fundamental issues which will impact humanity’s long-term future. One such issue is the challenge of securing the world's food supply.

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The global population of around 7.6 billion people is expected to rise to 9.8 billion people by 2050. To feed this many people, global agricultural production needs to exponentially increase (it is already at its limits) in a way that addresses the following countervailing and/or compounding trends:

  • significantly less land and water in the face of urban expansion, environmental degradation and drought;
  • competing demands on food supply coming from the diversion of food supply for use in the creation of biofuels and consumption by livestock;
  • changing dietary habits;
  • climate change, to which agriculture and food production is highly vulnerable; and
  • the need for farming practices to be sustainable, so future generations can continue to produce food.

"We need to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the past 10,000. It hasn’t been done. It needs a lot more thought.” – Juan Luciano (Chairman, Archer Daniels Midlands)

These trends have huge implications for the agricultural sector's ability to meet the challenge of securing the world's food supply.

Rising to the challenge

The mission for the global community is clear. As the age old adage goes: "Necessity is the mother of invention". And necessity is not only the mother of invention, it is also a driver for the uptake of innovations.

A big part of the solution is and will continue to be innovation in plant variety development and plant breeding. To use the words of Henk Bleker, State Secretary of Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation in the Netherlands: "It is now more than ever of vital importance in the interests of food security to promote the development of varieties that can help us to achieve good productivity while at the same time needing less inputs, being more resilient and better adapted, to the effects of climate change".

This is a subject worthy of far greater investor and consumer attention than it currently receives, not only because of the need to address the challenge of securing the world's food supply but also because innovation in agriculture is a source of economic growth, economic development for the rural sector and a major source of new employment - both for Australia and globally.

Innovation in plant variety development and plant breeding will ensure Australia remains at the forefront of agricultural innovation and can meet the significant challenges facing global agriculture. Agriculture has been recognised as a core pillar of the Australian economy yet much of our potential is remains to be unlocked. We are strategically positioned right below Asia, with some of the most vast, clean and green land in the world.

Australia needs plant breeding not only to remain viable but to reach our agricultural potential, to meet world demands, be the food bowl of Asia, satisfy the demands of an increasingly sophisticated consumer and do so in a sustainable manner.

So, innovation in agriculture has never been more important both to address the challenge of securing the world's food supply and as a driver of economic growth. This at a time when a key focus of Australia and the world is seeking to navigate a way out of, and recover from, the COVID 19 pandemic.

Plant breeders innovate and invest heavily to bring new superior varieties to the world: varieties that produce far higher yields and are of far higher quality, using less space, fewer chemicals and pesticides, producing less waste and with the ability to survive and thrive in unpredictable environmental conditions arising from climate change.

Plant breeding contributes to a better and more secure supply of food in a more resource-efficient and sustainable manner. Studies show more than 90 per cent of yield gain in the United Kingdom's main agricultural crops since 1982 is due to breeding new varieties.

This is something farmers have done for the past 10,000 years; examined their plants and selected and propagated for desirable and superior traits in their crops - the intuitive process of saving, selecting and crossing plants to achieve better disease resistance, higher yield, smaller seeds and larger fruit, taste, shortened growing seasons, better adaptation to diverse environmental conditions and increased harvestability.

Practically, everything we eat today has been domesticated from wild plants, with the benefit of a millennia of selective breeding and modification. The ancestor of the banana had many big seeds, making the fruit almost inedible; wheat came from a wild grass which typically had fragile ears that shattered once ripe - making harvest impossible - and long stalks prone to falling over in wind.

Think back to 15 years ago walking into the supermarket fresh produce section - you saw your standard tomato, kiwi fruit, blueberry, potato, grape. Today, consumer choice is vast and quality is high - from colour, size, taste to shelf life and use, all a product of plant breeding.

Even today, the majority of plant breeding continues to follow a conventional course. While talk of plant innovation or plant breeding is often linked to the discussion of genetically modified (or GM) plants, the majority of plant breeding today is still done through natural processes of selection and crossing, which farmers have done for the past 10,000 years. That is not to downplay the benefits of genetic modification and gene editing, which allows development of varieties at a much faster rate with greater accuracy and utilisation of previously unexploited germplasm - arguably necessary to meet the need for unprecedented and sustainable food production where conventional breeding can't.

Rewarding plant innovation

Plant breeding is a time-consuming, risky and expensive process. On average it takes 15-20 years to breed a new plant variety, with the risk that variety will fail. The breeder needs to identify what the market needs and the impact the countervailing and/or compounding trends identified above will have on agriculture 20 years down the track and start breeding for the identified traits and characteristics today.

So, it is critical to ensure organisations which invest in plant breeding are incentivised and rewarded to do so. A key way in which this occurs is through the ability to obtain intellectual property rights in that innovation. Intellectual property rights are monopoly rights which enable an organisation to recoup their investment, creating an incentive for breeders to continue breeding for the benefit of agriculture and society.

Plant Breeder's Rights (PBR) are a particular form of intellectual property right which, as is evident from the name, are designed to provide that incentive and support the breeding and development of new varieties of plants. PBR, is a tailor-made system for the protection of plant varieties, giving the breeder exclusive control over the propagating material of that variety (the seeds, cuttings, and tissue culture) for 20-25 years. In certain limited circumstances the right extends to the harvested material (the fruit and the flowers).

PBR is an important tool in the plant variety development chain. Plant breeding is a lengthy, complex and expensive process; with the product being easily reproduced and propagated by farmers, something very difficult to monitor and control, especially in vegetatively propagated crops, where a cutting can be taken from one plant reproducing thousands of further plants. PBR allows plant breeders to control use of their varieties, obtaining a royalty from producers who perform protected acts in respect of the propagating material of the variety, so allowing the breeder to recoup its investment and to continue breeding for the benefit of farmers and society.

A history of innovation

There are many examples of the benefits of plant breeding throughout history, including:

  • Rapeseed (canola), an old crop in world-terms, was first commercially planted in Australia in 1969. The initial varieties were not adapted to Australian conditions, being Canadian in origin. In 1972, the blackleg disease wiped out the fledgling industry with yield losses of up to 80 per cent. As rapeseed oil was seen as a good potential crop, conventional breeding programs started up in the early 1970s to improve yield, adaptation, blackleg resistance, seed quality and reduce erucic acid concentration, sourcing material from Japan, France and Canada. Twenty years later the problems linked to a specific environment, high level of blackleg occurrence and yield were solved. Rapeseed is now one of the major crops grown in Australia with Australia being one of the world's largest rapeseed oil exporter.
  • Cripps Pink, marketed under the world-famous Pink Lady trade mark, is an apple variety bred by John Cripps in 1973 at the Western Australian Department of Agriculture. The breeding process involved seven years of crossing the Golden Delicious and Red Williams varieties. The apple variety is known for its distinctive pink colouring, crispness, sweet and fizzy flavour and long-storing properties. The Western Australia Department of Agriculture exploited this variety through PBR in multiple countries. Demand for this variety marketed under the Pink Lady trademark continues today, particularly in the United Kingdom where demand continues to outstrip supply - a testament to Australian plant variety innovation.
  • A robust PBR system in Australia has played a significant role in Australia's booming wheat industry. The strengthening of Australia's plant breeders rights regime in 1994, laying the ground for breeders to collect end-point royalties (EPR) on harvested material, transformed Australian wheat breeding from being virtually entirely publicly funded in the 1990s to being completely funded by the private sector today due to the income generated by EPR.

These are but a few examples to illustrate the role that plant breeding can and has performed in facing the challenge of securing the world's food supply while addressing countervailing and/or compounding trends including changing dietary patterns and the need to develop sustainable farming practices; and as a driver of economic development and growth.

It is critical Australia continues to provide a strong PBR system to offer the incentives and reward this much-needed innovation to secure the world's food supply and as a driver of economic growth.

Helen Macpherson is Partner and Alanna Rennie is Lawyer for Baker McKenzie

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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