The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


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Prospects for Public Plant Breeding in a Small Country
Bob Lindner, Faculty of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia.


The biotechnology revolution is being fuelled by the convergence of an explosion of knowledge about molecular biology on the one hand, and on the other by legal and policy developments that have dramatically expanded the scope of intellectual property rights in plant genetic resources.

Due to a series of landmark patent decisions in the USA and elsewhere, comprehensive intellectual property protection not only applies to genetically engineered life forms, from microorganisms to plants and animals, but also to many of the "building blocks" needed to engineer transgenic organisms. New property rights create the basis for new markets, and new commercial biotechnology companies have proliferated rapidly during the last twenty years.

Concurrently, the opportunities arising from scientific discoveries have unleashed competitive forces that threaten to transform the production of new plant varieties. Much of the ownership of intellectual property rights in plant genetic resources is now concentrated in the hands of a small number of very large life sciences companies, and they are investing huge sums in research and development. Some commentators believe that public sector plant breeding and research organisations will be overwhelmed in the process.

The potential implications for the conduct and commercialisation of biological research, and for the evolution of agriculture in Australia are momentous, but poorly appreciated. Questions, which need to be addressed, include the following:

How does the division of benefits between farmers and holder’s of IP impact on the rate of adoption of new varieties?

How serious are compliance and enforcement issues for alternative appropriation mechanisms, such as seed royalties, end-point royalties, closed loop marketing contracts, or other material transfer agreements?

In the emerging market for protected inputs to plant breeding programs, such as patented genes and molecular biology techniques, what will be the impact of different intellectual property rights regimes on the cost and availability of protected property?

Will owners make key intellectual property available to public and/or private locally owned plant-breeding efforts in Australia, and if so on what terms?

In the paper, an attempt will be made to address some of these issues as they relate to public plant breeding in Australia