Seed World

Brexit priorities for the UK plant breeding and seeds sector

The viewpoint from the British Society of Plant Breeders

Dr. Penny Maplestone

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) brings an inevitable period of flux and uncertainty over precisely what the future holds for British agriculture in terms of support policies, trading arrangements, farming regulations and access to labour. The outlook for the plant breeding and seeds sector will depend critically on the development of these issues and the wider negotiations taking place on the United Kingdom’s (UK) future relationship with the EU.

Given the high level of pan-EU activity in plant breeding, variety registration, seeds marketing and other crop-related research and innovation, the outcome of these discussions will determine the extent to which UK independence marks a significant departure from current trading, research and development (R&D) and regulatory arrangements.

Nor is the current maelstrom of uncertainty confined to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The Scottish National Party (SNP)-led government in Scotland has used the Brexit vote as new grounds to call for a second independence referendum, opening up a new and different set of issues for plant breeders, seed merchants and farmers operating north of the border.

Furthermore, responsibility for agriculture under the Common Agricultural Policy is currently a devolved issue administered separately by England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has already committed that Brexit will not result in any removal or weakening of devolved powers, the potential development of four separate strands of agricultural policy across the UK simply adds to the layers of complexity and uncertainty involved.

But whatever the future holds, there can be no doubt that farmers throughout the UK will need continued access to the benefits of improved crop varieties, tailored to UK conditions, to maintain the agri-food sector’s competitiveness, resilience and sustainability on an increasingly global stage.

Working to promote a vibrant and innovative plant breeding industry in the UK is the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) overriding objective, and since the EU referendum vote in June 2016, the Society has acted swiftly to assess the specific implications of Brexit for plant breeders, to seek legal advice on key issues, and to consult with members.

This process identified the following five key Brexit priorities, and BSPB’s desired outcome in each case:

 Plant Variety Rights (PVR)

EU Plant Variety Rights were first introduced in 1995 and virtually all seed royalties on UK-grown crop varieties are now collected under this EU-wide system. Continued investment in UK plant breeding will depend on a seamless transfer of all EU-protected varieties to UK-based protection at the point of Brexit, with the same variety name, priority and duration of rights.

Variety registration

A single application under the current EU-wide variety registration system allows new varieties to be listed on the ‘common catalogue’ and marketed in all EU member states. This system has served the industry well and supports access to crop innovation – BSPB will seek solutions that minimise additional costs and duplication of effort, such as mutual recognition of common catalogue and UK-listed varieties.

Seeds marketing

UK seeds marketing legislation is already in place, broadly equivalent to EU-wide standards. BSPB is seeking no significant changes to the current system that has served the industry well and provides an independent assurance to growers of the purity, quality and varietal integrity of certified seed. To minimise costs and disruption for all concerned, BSPB will press for mutual recognition of seed marketing standards and free movement of seed to continue without restriction between the UK and EU.

GM and Plant Breeding Innovation

BSPB has long expressed concerns that research and investment in the development of GM crops and new genome editing techniques have been stifled by a shift towards unscientific or politically motivated regulation at EU level. By contrast the UK policy environment is strongly supportive of agri-science and leaving the EU may present a fresh opportunity for Britain to provide a more enabling environment for agricultural science, innovation and R&D investment.

Research and Development

Addressing the global challenges of food security, climate change and sustainable development will require continued international scientific collaboration and knowledge exchange. From a research perspective, the UK must safeguard access to EU R&D funding programmes, maintain straightforward research collaboration between the UK and other EU countries, and enable the UK to continue to contribute to and benefit from the shared resources, data and infrastructure of the pan-European agri-science base.

On all these issues, BSPB is engaging proactively with the UK government, other industry organisations and EU partners to promote the specific conditions and requirements for a competitive and dynamic British plant breeding industry outside the EU.

On the whole, BSPB’s consultation with members suggests that the ideal outcome would be for plant breeding companies to scarcely notice the transition as reciprocal agreements on Plant Variety Rights, seeds marketing and variety registration are maintained between the UK and EU, and a free trade deal is secured.

Furthermore, this aspiration applies across the BSPB membership, irrespective of whether companies are headquartered or owned in the UK, on the continent or outside the EU.

As indicated above, there may be scope for a post-Brexit Britain to be more evidence-based and enabling than Brussels in its regulation of future plant breeding innovation, but these long-term opportunities are simply dwarfed by the immediate imperative to maintain the regulatory and IP systems which support current plant breeding activity in the UK.

On the face of it there are grounds for optimism that such an outcome can be secured. Not only are the priorities for BSPB members shared by our counterparts across Europe, they also appear to be enshrined in the negotiating objectives of the UK government.

The Brexit White Paper issued in early February 2017 includes some encouraging pointers. While it makes clear that the UK will leave the single market, taking control of its own laws and bringing an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK, it also confirms that the UK’s general approach to preserving EU law will be to ensure that all EU laws which are directly applicable in the UK (such as EU regulations) and all laws which have been made in the UK in order to implement obligations as a member of the EU, remain part of domestic law on the day Britain leaves the EU. The Brexit White Paper confirms that “wherever practical and appropriate” the same rules and laws will apply in the UK on the day after it leaves the EU as did before. The UK government has announced plans for a separate White Paper on the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to remove the European Communities Act of 1972 from the UK statute book and convert the body of existing EU law into domestic law.

The White Paper reiterates the government’s aim to secure “the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods and services” with the EU outside the single market and via “an ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement”.

It also stresses that Britain will seek to “continue to collaborate with EU partners” on science, research and technology – a key part of the government’s recently unveiled industrial strategy.

Acknowledging the genuine uncertainties facing commercial companies, the White Paper also states that it is “in no one’s interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability”, saying the government would like “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership” by the end of the Article 50 process.

And, in specific reference to agriculture, the Brexit White Paper suggests that “leaving the EU offers the UK a significant opportunity to design new, better and more efficient policies for delivering sustainable and productive farming.”

So far so good.

However, more than eight months after the Brexit referendum vote, a lack of clarity prevails. Despite the warm words contained in the White Paper, assurances repeatedly sought from ministers on key issues such as the principles of future farm support, access to migrant labour, or even the broad direction of agricultural policy, have not been forthcoming.

Indeed signs of any political importance attached to agriculture are not encouraging. A recent freedom of information request lodged by the farming magazine Farmers Guardian revealed that of the 234 meetings held with industry by the Department for International Trade (DIT) in the first three months following the EU referendum, not a single one involved a farming organisation, the majority taking place with companies in the defence, aerospace, automotive and banking industries. At the time of writing, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has still not met with any ministers or officials at DIT.

The concern here is not of some malevolent political force working against agriculture, but rather that – in the face of such a mammoth and unprecedented process of negotiation and transition – the strategic significance of a thriving agricultural industry (and its associated supply sectors) may simply be overlooked.

For plant breeders, the need for clarity and reassurance on the critical issue of IP protection post-Brexit is urgent and real.

The breeding industry is completely dependent on its ability to protect its intellectual property in the form of plant varieties. In the UK, Plant Variety Rights (PVR) are used almost universally to protect varieties and generate income through the collection of seed royalties and farm-saved seed payments. For most of the major agricultural crops, royalties are the only source of income keeping plant breeders in business.

BSPB’s legal advice suggests that Brexit presents a specific and potentially devastating threat to the future of intellectual property (IP) protection for UK plant breeders, resulting from the fact that nearly all crop varieties currently on the market are protected by EU PVR.

It has been standard practice since the introduction of EU PVR for breeders to make a single PVR application, which provides protection across the EU. It is much more efficient and less costly than making multiple applications in different Member States.

However, from the exact moment that the UK leaves the EU none of these varieties will have IP protection unless the UK government enacts legislation transferring all EU-protected varieties to a UK PVR register with the same name, scope of protection, registration date and term as the equivalent EU PVR.

Again, BSPB’s legal advice indicates that this is an issue which does not require negotiation with the rest of the EU, and that the UK government can act unilaterally to ensure a smooth transition from EU to UK PVR. To date, however, BSPB has received no direct assurances that the government will address this issue in time, creating significant uncertainty and anxiety within the industry.

While the UK plant breeding industry is fortunate in having a government which recognises the importance of plant breeding and the underpinning R&D needed to unlock advances in our genetic knowledge, such support counts for very little without the promise of a functioning system to protect and derive income from the resulting products and innovation.

BSPB has warned ministers that the lack of clarity on this issue could start to affect investment decisions, and has already led to increased costs for breeding companies who have sought to mitigate potential losses by submitting new varieties for UK PVR ahead of EU PVR in order to be certain that those varieties will be protected in the UK post-Brexit.

But the immediate urgency is to secure the position for varieties currently on the market with EU PVR. In a worst-case situation, all these varieties would overnight become free for multiplication and sale in the UK with no protection against copying and plagiarism. Breeders would be unable to prevent anyone from using or exploiting the results of years of research and development, and would be left without any return on their investment.

It seems inconceivable that the UK government will not take action on this issue, since the result is likely to be the complete withdrawal of the plant breeding industry from the UK market, including the closure of R&D facilities, business premises and job losses.

More far-reaching, UK farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers would be denied access to the latest genetic advances. This would apply not only to the sale of seed but also to imports of some harvested produce, mainly an issue in the vegetable sector where many companies have a clear policy not to allow their genetics into territories where they have no IP protection whether as propagating or harvested material.

In short, without an assurance on the status of EU-protected varieties in the UK post-Brexit, the situation could be irretrievable. Plant breeding is a long-term business and breeding programmes cannot easily be switched back on once they have been stopped.

The greatest challenge for our industry lies in managing this uncertainty. Only the UK government can know the reason why a cast-iron guarantee cannot be given without delay on this very specific issue.

Again, the underlying concern is not of any hidden political agenda, but simply the scale of the undertaking facing the UK in converting the body of existing EU legislation into domestic law, and the risk that this could lead to unintended, but nevertheless devastating, consequences for particular businesses.

For its part, BSPB will continue to engage proactively with the UK government and enlist the support of other industry organisations to raise the profile of this issue and seek the earliest possible assurance of a seamless transfer from EU to UK Plant Variety Rights for all-EU protected varieties.

More than ever, it is vital that policy-makers – and particularly those responsible for setting and negotiating the conditions of Brexit – understand the value and importance of supporting a vibrant, local-based plant breeding industry, not only for the sustainability of our food and farming industries but also for the wider economy, for our health and quality of life, and for the environment.

Dr. Penny Maplestone is chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders

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