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A potato plant breeding project at Progest, an agricultural R&D firm in Quebec. Photo: Progest.

Boosting Plant Breeders’ Rights

How new legislation is expected to provide increased opportunities in the Canadian potato industry.

Earlier this year Canada became the newest country to revise its Plant Breeders’ Rights legislation with the adoption of the Agricultural Growth Act, also known as Bill C-18. The act includes amendments to the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act (PBRA), which brings Canada’s PBRA into compliance with the 1991 Convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91).

The amendments are expected to transform the Canadian potato breeding landscape in a number of ways, including increasing producer access to new varieties and creating new trade opportunities.

Keith Kuhl, president of the Canadian Horticultural Council as well as CEO and president of Manitoba-based Southern Potato Co.,
says the road to these amendments has been long and hard.

For many years CHC has advocated and lobbied the Canadian government to make changes to the Plant Breeder Rights laws to ensure that we are in compliance with UPOV91,” explains Kuhl. “When Canada first agreed to implement Plant Breeder Rights legislation, many foreign seed companies started to introduce their varieties into the Canadian marketplace.”

However, Kuhl notes that as the rest of the world made changes to their Plant Breeder Rights laws Canada resisted change and remained with the status quo. “The result was that many companies were reluctant to introduce varieties into our marketplace, and if they did introduce a new variety it was generally not the varieties that had the best potential,” states Kuhl.

“The implementation of Bill C-18 will change this. Southern Potato deals with many different breeding companies and uses varieties with plant breeders’ rights from these companies. The change will ensure that we have access to top varieties offered by our partner companies.”

Provisions in the PBRA expected to benefit  potato breeders include the following:

  • Extending the duration of protection from 18 to 25 years
  • Allowing plant breeders to sell propagating material of their potato variety in Canada for up to one year before applying for PBR protection in order to test the market, advertise, or to increase stock
  • Providing automatic provisional protection for a new plant variety from the date of filing, which would allow applicants to exercise their rights while applications are pending “grant of rights”
  • Extending plant breeders rights to include reproduction, import, export, conditioning (clean, treat), and stocking of propagating material of the variety for the commercial purposes of propagating, in addition to the current system that already allows for the sale of propagating material and the production of propagating material intended for sale
  • Extending plant breeders’ rights to harvested material, but only in the case where the harvested material has been obtained through the unauthorized use of propagating material and the rights holder has not had reasonable opportunity to exercise their rights in relation to that propagating material

As of July 19, Canada was officially recognized internationally as having a UPOV 91 compliant PBRA. That month, the first seven potato varieties were granted rights under the new legislation: AmaRosa, Huckleberry Gold, Palisade Russet, Sage Russet and Teton Russet which were all developed in the United States, and the varieties Bellinda and Merida that were developed in Germany.

“Most UPOV members are already meeting UPOV 91 requirements, including many of our key trading partners, such as Australia, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the United States,” says Anthony Parker, commissioner of the Plant Breeders’ Rights Office. “This will now bring confidence in our intellectual property framework not only to Canadian breeders but the international potato breeding community.”

Parker notes that the government anticipates that the Canadian agriculture sector will benefit in two fundamental ways. “The first benefit is a strengthened intellectual property framework that will encourage foreign breeders to release their new varieties into the Canadian market for evaluation and sale, providing growers and farmers with increased choice when sourcing varieties that meet their specific needs,” he explains.

The second benefit according to Parker is a “more secure intellectual property environment that will increase investment in domestic potato breeding programs to develop innovative and higher yielding varieties.”

Additionally, there are key benefits for Canadian breeding programs in private and public sectors as well as partnerships that are applied internationally under the UPOV framework. A Canadian potato breeder can apply for protection in any UPOV member country and receive consistent and harmonized intellectual property protection, says Parker.

“Canadian plant breeders will benefit from protection for their varieties not just here in Canada, but when exporting propagating material (i.e.: seed) of these successful varieties for use in other UPOV member countries where protection has been obtained,” he says.

Parker adds the PBR amendments should encourage increased investment in plant breeding in Canada and provide incentives for foreign breeders to protect and sell their varieties in
this country.

“Part of the amendments include a specific breeder’s exemption that allows for public and private plant breeders to use protected varieties in the development of new varieties without authorization from the holder of the rights,” explains Parker. “This promotes research towards the development of new, improved plant varieties.”

Benefits for Breeders

Kuhl sees an number of areas that the PBR amendment can now help potato breeders looking for specific benefits within their own breeding programs, such as:

  • Increased yields with lower use of water and nutrients
  • Increased disease and pest resistance
  • Improved skin finish and overall quality
  • Improved taste
  • Improved nutritional value
  • Improved storage life
  • Lower acrylamide levels
  • Improved processing quality

According to Parker, Canadian potato producers stand to benefit in a number of ways.

“Farmers will now have improved access to a wider selection of innovative new varieties that have been bred to enhance crop yields, improve disease and drought resistance, reduce the need for fertilizer and pesticide use, and meet specific market demands.”

Kuhl expects to see, in some cases, that marketing of some new varieties will greatly change. “I do see more potatoes being marketed by variety, provided the companies who control the Canadian rights to the variety are interested in investing the funds needed to allow them to make specific claims on nutrition of sustainability. These attributes could be included in promotion of the variety,” says Kuhl.

“I believe that as more new varieties are offered we will also see an increase in variety specific marketing.”

However, Kuhl does question how many varieties are needed given Canada’s population size. “At what point do we hit market saturation with varieties?” he asks.

While many in the industry are optimistic about the PBR amendments, Saskatchewan potato breeder and seed grower John Konst is wary about the affect the change will have in terms of increased opportunities for smaller breeding operations across the country.

“I do have questions, but time will tell whether large as well as small companies will see the same benefits,” states Konst. “It’s a tough business and small businesses and potato breeders need to be assured that protection will be granted the same rights as other large companies in the industry.”

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