UPOV Sprouts A New Public Face – As Farmers Protest

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On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) is trying to dispel its image as a non-transparent organisation and is working on a new user-friendly website with public access to a number of formerly reserved documents. Meanwhile, for the first time farmers protested outside the UPOV building in Geneva, as they seek to preserve the ancient practice of saving seeds from their harvests to use the next year.

The main aim of the UPOV convention is to grant plant breeders an intellectual property right on their varieties, according to UPOV.

During a rare UPOV press briefing today, UPOV Secretary General Francis Gurry said that the world faces a conjunction of circumstances which make innovation in agriculture more important than ever. With the prospect of 9 billion people to feed by 2050, it is estimated that agricultural productivity need to improve by 70 percent, he said. Climate change is an added challenge and the role of innovation in agriculture and horticulture in finding varieties coping with climate change is key. The UPOV secretary general is also director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which hosts UPOV.

UPOV was set up in 1961, and its acronym comes from the original French name of the organisation Union internationale pour la protection des obtentions végétales. It was established by the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. The convention entered into force in 1968, was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991. The 1991 Act entered into force in 1998. The 70th member of UPOV is Peru, which deposited its instrument of accession to the UPOV Convention in August 2011.

UPOV sets the legal framework of the system and provides assistance to member countries, UPOV Vice-Secretary General Peter Button told Intellectual Property Watch. Each country then includes in its domestic laws the concepts of plant variety protection that are defined by the Convention.

UPOV also has a Council composed of the representatives of the members of the union with each member having one vote in the Council. It meets once a year in ordinary session, which took place today. The Council has established several committees, which meet once or twice a year.

UPOV has long faced criticism from representatives of the public, such as civil society and the press, for being non-transparent, in particular concerning observer status and meeting documents being unavailable.

Farmers demonstrate in front of UPOV

New Public Image, User-friendly Website

At the press briefing, Button announced a new UPOV public image through a new website, because “UPOV is perhaps not as widely known as other organisations,” he said. The future of agriculture relies on new varieties of plants, he said, and IP rights are an encouragement for breeders to develop new varieties of plants.

UPOV felt more information should be available about the organisation, and the 50th anniversary was an opportunity to improve outreach, he said. The new website, as presented at the press briefing is colourful, has charts, boxes, maps and pictures to illustrate explanations, in stark contrast to the current rather dull and terse website. The UPOV website is here.

General information such as what is UPOV, what it does and what is plant variety protection will be available with examples showing the positive impact of new varieties on yields. The new website will be launched on 1 November. It will also include a freely accessible database of plant varieties, a multimedia presentation on UPOV, a video on the use of plant variety protection by gentian farmers in the Ashiro region of Japan, and a database of UPOV members’ laws.

According to a UPOV Council press release presented at the briefing by UPOV Council President Keun-Jin Choi, the Council agreed that the documents of the Administrative and Legal Committee, the Technical Committee and the Technical Working Parties, “which were formerly only accessible to members and observers, would be made publicly accessible.”

A representative of the Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES) (IPW, United Nations, 20 October 2011) told Intellectual Property Watch afterward that the UPOV Council decision to make more documents publicly available was “a step in the right direction.” But, he said, “maybe the most important documents, the ones of the consultative committee”, which is the “de facto decision taking body,” are still not available. No observers are allowed in the consultative committee either, he said.

The UPOV program and budget for the 2012-2013 biennium, of CHF6.8 million was also approved.

The Council “noted a record number of plant variety protection titles granted in 2010,” and agreed to participate on a research project on the economics of the multilateral system of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The UPOV system is a sui generis system, which means that member countries are free to adapt their legislations to protect plant varieties. According to CIOPORA, a breeders’ association, the UPOV system is the most widely used to protect plant varieties. Plant varieties can also be protected through patents, like in the United States, where patenting of plants is available, they said.

In order to be eligible for protection under the UPOV convention, plants “have to be (i) distinct from existing, commonly known varieties, (ii) sufficiently uniform, (iii) stable and (iv) new in the sense that they must not have been commercialized prior to certain dates established by reference to the date of the application for protection, ” according to a UPOV publication [pdf ].

The protection, which is established at the country level either through an intellectual property office or a devoted structure, is granted for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plants, after which period, varieties protected fall into the public domain, according to UPOV.

The Convention includes several exemptions, such as for private and non-commercial purposes, research purposes, or for breeding of further new varieties.

According to UPOV, its main activities consist of promoting international harmonisation and cooperation between its members and of assisting countries in the introduction of the UPOV system in their legislation.

Farmers’ Protest on UPOV’s Doorstep for Right to Save Seeds

While UPOV was celebrating its 50th anniversary, la Via Campesina, an international farmers association, held its first-ever protest on the doorstep of WIPO, gathering farmers coming from European countries.

Protesters’ main concern is the fact that the 1991 UPOV Convention prevents the saving and sharing of farmers seeds. If they originally buy protected varieties, farmers would like to be able to save some of their harvest and share and exchange some of it with other farmers without paying additional royalties.

They claim that original seeds were removed freely from farmers’ fields by breeders. They add that those seeds that were used to engineer new varieties were selected and saved over thousands of years by farmers.

According to Guy Kastler, La Via Campesina representative, farmers should be able to save and exchange seeds, even from protected varieties. Those saved seeds would not be commercialised as such, he told Intellectual Property Watch.

La Via Campesina would like the farmers’ exception included in the UPOV Convention to be extended to all varieties. For the moment only certain crops benefit from the exception, at each country’s discretion.

The discontent is mainly about UPOV 1991, as Kastler said UPOV 1961 or 1978 were more favourable to farmers. In a release, La Via Campesina said the right for farmers to replant and exchange their seeds is indispensable to adapt cultures to climate change and allow seeds to acclimate to local conditions in order to minimise the use of fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This right to save seeds guarantees the security of global seed stock and food security, he added.

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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