Pakistan’s plant variety protection laws: balancing national food security with the rights of plant breeders.
Akhund Forbes, Karachi
In 2000, Pakistan revised its patent laws to comply with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (‘TRIPS Agreement’), but it did not include plant variety protection laws.
However, the Plant Breeders' Rights Act, 2016 (‘Act’) was passed on 5 December, 2016. The Act grants plant breeders the authority to own the rights to cultivate and distribute new, genetically specific and distinct seed varieties, while also safeguarding the rights of small-scale farmers and farming enterprises.
This article will explore how the law strikes a balance between national food security and the rights of plant breeders and the impact it has had on the growth of the agriculture industry in terms of statistics.
How the Act strikes a balance between national food security and the rights of plant breeders
Sustainable growth of the food and agriculture industry is a key factor in determining national food security.
The Act provides for the safeguard of the rights of farmers, as well as protecting the growth and development of traditional crops. It recognises the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell seeds from protected varieties for their own use. This is subject to certain conditions and safeguards to ensure that the use of protected varieties does not infringe the rights of plant breeders. Additionally, the Act promotes the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, which includes measures to promote the exchange of genetic resources, encourages the use of traditional varieties and promotes the participation of local communities in the management of plant genetic resources. Significantly, for the rights of farmers, the Act also provides for compulsory licensing of protected varieties in certain circumstances, such as when the plant breeder fails to make the protected variety available to the public on reasonable terms, or when there is a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency. The intended purpose for this is to ensure that protected varieties are available to farmers and researchers, even if the plant breeder is unwilling or unable to provide them.
The Act also provides for the protection of the rights of plant breeders. Specifically, the Act grants exclusive rights to the breeder of a new plant variety to produce, sell, offer for sale and import/export a variety, which effectively prohibits anyone else from producing, selling or distributing the same variety without the breeder's permission. Additionally, the Act establishes a protection term of up to 25 years for most crops and up to 30 years for trees and vines. This extended term of protection enables breeders to enjoy exclusive rights to their variety for a significant period, thus encouraging investment in plant breeding.
A significant element of the Act is the availability of civil and criminal remedies for infringement of a breeder's rights. These remedies include injunctions, damages and seizure of infringing goods. These measures deter potential infringers from violating the rights of plant breeders and serve as an effective means of recourse in case of infringement.
The Plant Breeders’ Registry (‘Registry’) has been established under the Ministry of National Food Security in accordance with the Act, with the aim of developing new crop varieties and granting the breeders’ intellectual property rights.
The need for the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act 2016 and its impacts
Prior to the Act, 74 countries excluding Pakistan had plant breeder protection laws which, for Pakistan, resulted in a lack of foreign investment in the country’s agricultural industry. The Act aimed to encourage larger investments in this sector by providing an effective protection system for seed varieties, which would eventually result in greater technological advancements, research-based institutions, better yield and ultimately more exports. Moreover, the Act was welcomed as Pakistan was bound to comply with the rules under the TRIPS Agreement which specifically made provisions for the protection of breeders’ rights to patent plant varieties.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the introduction of new plant varieties in Pakistan has resulted in a significant increase in agricultural productivity. For instance, the introduction of a new wheat variety called ‘Pakhtunkhwa-2013’ increased yield by 35 per cent compared to older varieties. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the country's exports of agricultural products rose from $4.4 billion in 2015–16 to $5.8 billion in 2020–21, partly due to the development of new and improved plant varieties, which made Pakistani agricultural products more competitive globally.
However, there are potential drawbacks to this Act. According to a report by the Asian Farmers' Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), the Act may restrict farmers' rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds from protected varieties. The report also suggests that the Act may make it difficult for small farmers to access improved seed varieties due to the high costs associated with purchasing seeds from plant breeders who have legal protection.
Despite the potential drawbacks, the Pakistani government has demonstrated that the advantages of the Plant Breeders' Rights Act, 2016 outweigh the detriments. The growth indicators mentioned above and the influx of foreign investment in the sector are a testament to this. The Act is a commendable and successful attempt by the government to ensure the sustainable growth of unique plant breeds, national food security and, most importantly, the protection of the rights of plant breeders.
It is important to note that the Act complies with the guidelines of the TRIPS Agreement and strikes a balance between the rights of small-scale farmers and those of breeders. This balance is crucial for the progress and sustainable growth of Pakistan's agriculture and food industry.