Inside View: July 2012

June 20, 2012
Written by Gary Jones
I’ve always been fascinated by new varieties. Or rather, I should say by the fact that we can “make” new varieties of plants. Nowhere is this more striking (for me at least) than with new flowers. New colours, patterns, shapes and fragrances (or combinations of these) are simply delightful and almost always satisfying in a “sense of achievement” sort of way.

But this process takes time and money, and lots of both. So, understandably, companies (and individuals) want to recoup their investments and hopefully go on to make some profit.
There is naturally therefore an element of ownership. Subsequently therefore, there is a possibility of theft.

To help in this process, we have “Plant Breeders’ Rights” (PBR). In Canada, these are covered by the “Plant Breeders’ Rights Act” (August 1990), intellectual property rights by which breeders can protect their investment in new varieties. Think of them as a kind of “plant patent.”

“With the grant of a Plant Breeders’ Right for a new variety, the owner obtains the exclusive rights to produce for sale, and to sell, reproductive material of the variety” and “is then able to protect the variety from exploitation by others and can take legal action against individuals or companies that are propagating and selling reproductive material without permission. The holder of the rights may also take action to prevent another person or business from using the approved denomination (variety name) of the protected variety when selling propagating material of another variety of the same genus or species.”1

All species of plants are eligible for protection by Plant Breeders’ Rights in Canada, excluding algae, fungi and bacteria. The owner of a variety will be granted a Plant Breeders’ Right if it can be demonstrated that the variety is:
  • New.
  • Distinct.
  • Uniform.
  • Stable.1
The aims of the PBR are:
To stimulate plant breeding in Canada.

To provide Canadian producers better access to foreign varieties.

To facilitate the protection of Canadian varieties in other countries.1

The PBR is a very reasonable and practical way to achieve the above objectives and to help secure some return on investment. All well and good within the current economic model in which we conduct our business.

But if this is the “Microsoft Windows” version of business, is there another option? Is there a “Freeware” version of trade in the plant breeding world that we can all freely access and benefit from?

Well, maybe there is.

Some time ago, Kwantlen School of Horticulture was approached by a local organic producer to see if there could be a partnership to establish a “seed library.” This functions just like a book or periodical library, except that the items in the catalogue are seeds. The catalogue is filed by sections such as “vegetables,” “herbs,” “annual flowers,” and so on.

Borrowers search the catalogue for what’s available and simply sign out a number of seeds, place them in a small paper packet, and grow them on for the season. Afterwards, they save seed from the plants and replace what they borrowed so that the library is once again fully stocked and ready to go into another growing year. The service is free and access is open to all.

Since seed in the original catalogue is donated and is from heritage, open-pollinated cultivars, there are no issues of “ownership.” Further, since users are not wishing to outcompete each other for financial gain, there is no desire to own or benefit from such ownership. Everyone wins, and there is continued access to a wide gene pool.

However, even within the PBR there maybe such opportunities, since there are restrictions/exceptions to the Holders’ Rights, namely:

“Research Exemption: Protected varieties may be used for breeding and developing new plant varieties without the permission of the holder of the rights.

“Farmers’ Privilege: Farmers may save and plant their own seed of protected varieties on their own land without infringing on the holder’s rights.”1

There ought to be a fundamental right of access to seeds, as long as this does not cause others harm (in this case financial). Perhaps both of these systems have ways of providing for this.

However, we have yet to see what happens when someone finds a wonderful new “sport” from seeds borrowed from a library …

  1. http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/plaveg/pbrpov/guidee.shtml


Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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