Peter Button finds House of Lords report “a missed opportunity for UK horticulture”

According to Peter Button (former head of international plant variety rights organization UPOV), last November’s House of Lords report into the challenges facing the horticulture sector and the Government’s recent response is “a missed opportunity to strengthen research and access to essential genetic innovation for British growers and their customers.”

He finds that it was ‘understandable’ that the report focused on short-term issues affecting the horticulture sector, such as labor availability, energy costs, and fairness in the supply chain. However, he argues, “for a report entitled ‘Sowing the Seeds, ‘ it is remarkable how little attention was devoted in the report to the importance of seeds, plant breeding, and genetic innovation because these will be absolutely critical in the medium- and long-term for a competitive and sustainable horticulture industry in Britain. Of the report’s 167 conclusions and recommendations, only two relate to the ‘seed’ from which all horticultural crops are produced,”

“Ironically, nearly all the other 165 conclusions and recommendations hinge on the assumption that growers will have access to the improved seed and planting material they need to meet the demands of customers. It is therefore surprising that no mention is made in the report of the existential threats currently facing Britain’s vegetable, fruit, and ornamental breeders and seed suppliers, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario,” he adds.

Peter Button, former head of former head of UPOV

On the Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) website, Mr. Button highlights that since leaving the EU, the UK plant breeding and seed sector has been facing challenges. He mentions examples such as increased variety registration costs and delays, difficulties moving seed and breeding material to and from Europe under new plant health arrangements, and uncertainty over the potential loss of seed treatment products.

In his opinion, these pressures would have damaging consequences for British growers’ future access to genetic innovation if they were left unchecked. Which, he thinks, was becoming even more critical in the face of climate change and the need to adapt to changes in seasonality, greater weather extremes, droughts and floods, heat stress, and new disease and insect pest challenges.

Looking beyond the immediate post-Brexit challenges, Mr. Button also highlights new opportunities for UK horticulture. He believes that improved coordination of research, innovation between industry, academia, and government, and building on existing clusters to develop scale and mass, as well as using IP more effectively, could help growers create and capture value.

He points to international examples of IP being used to capture value for growers and more sustainably funding future horticulture research. He takes the Canadian sweet cherry sector as an example. He claims that new varieties transformed the sector into a multi-million dollar industry, while the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act in the USA would have stimulated innovation in the horticulture sector — by enabling universities, non-profit research institutions, and small businesses to own IP, protect and commercialize state-funded inventions, encouraging greater involvement in the transfer of technology from the lab to market (including through public-private partnerships).

Mr. Button also cited Pink Lady® apples as an example of how IP could be used to benefit breeders, growers, and consumers in the horticulture sector: “The price of Pink Lady apples, originating from a variety developed in Australia, is significantly higher than that of older varieties such as Golden Delicious. Consumers are free to choose the cheaper option, but if they choose Pink Lady, it is because they prefer the quality that results from investment in research and innovation. Importantly, the returns for growers of Pink Lady apples are generally significantly higher than for non-protected varieties – a win-win-win for breeders, growers, and consumers.”

Finally, Mr. Button stresses that reform could make the UK Plant Breeders Rights and National List schemes more ‘cost-efficient’ and ‘ streamlined.’ He illustrates this statement by the cooperation mechanisms that exist within the international UPOV system, both in terms of variety testing and advanced IT systems. He warns that without a more ‘progressive’ approach, the status quo could result in varieties being fewer or slower available to British growers (due to increased registration costs and the UK’s relatively small market).

Peter Button’s article, entitled: “Focus on genetics and IP needed to boost Britain’s horticulture sector” is available on the SSA website.

For more information:
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
[email protected]