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Ten years ago, Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act was updated to align with UPOV ’91, the globally acknowledged framework that protects the innovation of plant breeders and helps them profit from new variety development. The legislation is intended to protect breeders’ rights, increase investment in plant breeding and boost access to foreign genetics. Farm groups strongly resisted its adoption as they feared the cost burden for farmers.

Anthony Parker is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) commissioner of PBR and Canada’s head delegate to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Parker grew up on a mixed farm near Bearbrook, ON, studied political science and environmental studies at Carleton University, plant breeding and genetics at the University of Nebraska, intellectual property law at York University and managed various CFIA departments. His considerable industry knowledge and experience made him an ideal candidate to push the controversial legislation forward.

GrainsWest: How did you come to head the PBR office?

Anthony Parker: I was acting director of the Horticulture Division when senior management came to me in 2012 and said they were getting pressure to move UPOV ’91 forward. We were a signatory in 1991. The government had tried unsuccessfully to advance legislation in 1998 and the early 2000s. I was a bit naïve. I talked to the staff and asked what had been tried. They said, ‘Year after year, we try to push this forward through the ranks of government, and it’s just not getting traction.’ I said, ‘Let’s throw out the rulebook.’ Let this be driven from the outside by the farm community, producer organizations and the seed industry. If they want this to happen, the momentum must come from there.

GW: What approach did you take?

AP: We offered a lot of education on the benefits of strengthening intellectual property (IP) rights. We generally move such things through inside government, so [the process] is kind of isolated. You weren’t hearing outside voices. I reached out to each of the organizations and made myself available. That was unique. Our approach was to get accurate information in the hands of farmers and farm organizations and let them decide whether they wanted to move this forward or not.

A group of stakeholders formed a coalition called Partners in Innovation. The partnership communicated with a single voice to government and said, ‘You need to do this. This is going to impact our long-term competitiveness.’

GW: What challenges did you face during this process? 

AP: We were hands-on all the way. I made sure it did not go off track. It’s a very different approach government was not necessarily used to. On one hand, you have to convince farmers this is the right step, that it’s going to take them to a better place. But there’s also resistance within bureaucracies. The status quo feels comfortable and this shift is going to create controversy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

GW: What characteristics do you need to succeed in your role? 

AP: The first question is, have I been successful? It depends on who you ask. You do have to be tenacious, persistent, forwarding thinking. You might have to go through some pain, but the reward is the positive outcome. The thing that really motivates me is that if I do my job really well, the outcomes are [beneficial] for farmers and everyone in the value chain. You also have to be prepared to fail sometimes, but there’s a lot to be learned from failure.

GW: What benefits does PBR legislation offer farmers and the agricultural community?

AP: The 1991 Act is the most recent convention, so it’s the strongest form of intellectual property protection offered internationally. Back in the day, Canada was party to the weaker form. The motivation behind moving to stronger legislation was to attract more new plant varieties into Canada. Breeders told us they were not going to release their varieties into Canada. The IP rights were too weak, and they feared infringement of their intellectual property. The second part was to help stimulate investment in domestic breeding programs. The royalties they collect can be used to reinvest in those programs. If you get those things going in the right direction, farmers have more choice. We have more better-performing varieties that help farmers be more prosperous. The upgraded rights also signal to the world we’ve got strong IP rights. You can come and invest here in Canada.

We looked at economic trends and productivity. Yields, exports and farm cash receipts have gone up. Generally, everything was trending in a positive direction. We saw more filings for plant breeders’ rights. We’re at a 15-year high for international agricultural varieties. Internationally, breeding companies see Canada as more attractive to release varieties into.

GW: Where do you see room for improvement? 

AP: There are some problematic areas. Despite moving to UPOV ’91, our IP rights are not as strong as in Europe and the United States. The U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act is similar to Canada’s PBR Act, but it also issues plant patents on asexually bred plant varieties and utility patents. Canada does not offer the last two, and patents are much stronger forms of IP protection than PBR. The EU offers 25 years of PBR protection for plant varieties and 30 years for potatoes, trees, vines, asparagus, woody fruits and ornamentals. Canada only offers the minimum required by UPOV ’91: 25 years for trees and vines, and 20 years for everything else.

We compete with the two jurisdictions to attract investment with one hand tied behind our back because our IP rights are not as strong. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re not a leading country, which concerns me because we want to unleash the potential of our agricultural sector. We could become a global superpower in agriculture. But we can only get there with IP rights that are strong, effective, fair and balanced, and we’re not there yet.

GW: What work still needs to be done?

AP: Certain crop types such as potatoes take a long time to breed and to get market adoption. The IP rights we offer just aren’t long enough. The European Union offers 30 years. If we wanted to attract more new potato varieties into Canada, we would need a longer duration of protection.

The Achilles heel of the agriculture sector is we lack an overarching system for fair and balanced compensation on farm-saved seed. And it’s a lightning rod issue. It’s a pity, because it could help fund our dwinding public sector breeding programs and encourage the private sector to invest in crops like cereals. Generally, farmers don’t like the idea. They don’t want to pay any more for a variety than they already do. But the problem is then you’re not going to attract investment, and you’re going to limit your options for innovation. We’re kind of stuck. We’re just not getting signals from farmers, particularly in Western Canada, that they’re comfortable with this yet. Perspectives are changing slowly, but it will take time.

GW: And yet you’ve made incredible headway. What gives you satisfaction in your role as commissioner?

AP: When I see a new variety that would not have been there had we not moved legislation forward. Now farmers have a new option, a new tool in their toolbox that can help them prosper. That’s when I know I’m in the right role. I love the job so much I’ve stayed in it for a decade. I could not imagine doing anything different.   


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