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Norway's 'no' to stricter plant breeders' rights

In 2005, the Norwegian government decided to reject a bill proposing substantially stricter plant breeders' rights, which would enable Norwegian membership in UPOV based on its 1991 Act. Norway's commitment to Farmers' Rights was a main argument for turning down the bill.

UPOV was adopted in 1961 to ensure that member states would acknowledge the achievements of breeders of new plant varieties by making available to them exclusive property rights for a given period. There was a need to develop a system better suited than the existing patent system to the needs of plant breeders, to ensure continued access to plant varieties for breeding purposes. Therefore wide exemptions were to be allowed from the property rights for breeders and also for farmers. The Convention on which UPOV is based entered into force in 1968 and has been revised several times, each time with increasingly restricted exemptions for breeders and farmers. Today most member countries adhere to either the 1978 Act or the 1991 Act of UPOV. Norway is member of UPOV based on the 1978 Act and upholds its right to continue as a member on the basis of that Act.

There are important differences between the 1978 and the 1991 UPOV Acts with regard to coverage, period, scope and exemptions. The 1978 Act covers plant varieties of nationally defined species or genera, whereas the later Act covers plant varieties of all genera and species. The protection period is minimum 15 years under the first Act and minimum 20 years under the later Act. The protection scope under the 1978 Act is production for the purposes of commercial marketing, offering for sale and marketing of propagating material of a protected variety. To this, the 1991 Act adds, inter alia, exporting, importing, and stocking for the above purposes of the protected material. Breeders are free to use a protected variety to develop a new variety under the 1978 Act, but not if it requires repeated use of that variety. Under the 1991 Act this exemption is restricted, and it is not permitted to produce varieties which are essentially derived from a protected variety or which are not distinguishable from such a variety. Farmers are free to use their harvested material from a protected variety for any purpose under the 1978 Act. Under the later Act, however, national governments are entitled to decide whether farmers shall be allowed - within reasonable limits and safeguarding the legitimate interests of the rights holder - to reuse the harvest of protected varieties on their own land holdings without the authorization of the rights holder. Exchange or sale of such material is not allowed.

A "Svedjerug" field in Norway. Norwegian Association of Biological-Dynamic FarmersThe Norwegian bill was put forward because the country's plant breeding industry had been privatized a few years earlier. The government then in power had expected that the breeding industry would gradually adapt to market forces, and that the costs could be covered through royalties on plant varieties. Therefore the breeding industry suggested changing the legislation on plant variety protection to conform to the UPOV Act of 1991, with Norway thereby becoming a member of UPOV'91. This would provide necessary but still not sufficient financial means for the small but vital plant breeding industry in the country. In January 2005, the bill was sent out on hearing. Firm protests came, particularly for two reasons: (1) if adopted, the new law would limit the customary rights of farmers to save, reuse and exchange farm-saved seeds and propagating material - which they still do to some extent. (2) It would transfer the costs to the Norwegian farmers, as they would have to buy propagating material for each season. For some species, small-scale farmers could reuse their farm-saved seeds or potatoes, but this would require payment of royalties. Even the breeding industry, while supporting the proposal, suggested further exemptions for farmers.

In September, a new Labour coalition government was elected, and an earlier board member of the largest farmers' union became Minister of Agriculture and Food. One of his first decisions was to reject the law proposal on UPOV'91 membership because, as he stated, it would be detrimental to Farmers' Rights. This caused great exultation among farmers. A few months later, the same minister ensured that financial allocations were made to the breeding industry in order to compensate for the lost income. As the breeding industry in Norway is small and hardly profitable, but still vital to the country's agriculture, this was an important move.

The decision to reject the bill, and thereby membership in UPOV '91, must be seen as a victory for Farmers' Rights in Norway. On the other hand, it does not mean that Norway has come even half as far as India in this regard. Norway has adopted regulations from the European Union on seed certification and distribution which prohibit the exchange of seed and propagating material among farmers, to comply with its commitments to the European Economic Area ( EEA – to which Norway, as a non-EU member, belongs). Neither the authorities, the breeders, nor other central stakeholders support this regulation, and consideration is being given to how this can be amended to be more in line with Farmers' Rights. Thus the Norwegian achievement must be said to be a partial success.

How can this (partial) success be explained? An important reason is probably that multinational seed corporations are almost non-existent in the Norwegian seed market, due to the very special agricultural conditions in the country (short growing season, but much daylight, even when it gets colder) and the limited seed market. Furthermore, the main breeding company is partly owned by a farmers' cooperative. Thus, there has been some, but not much, lobbying from the breeding industry in Norway. Furthermore, both the academic world and farmers' organizations were involved in the hearings, and could voice their analyses and concerns to the authorities. This process paved the way for the final no, when the new government came to power, with a new Minister of Agriculture and Food.

What can other countries learn from this experience? Countries belonging to the WTO are obliged to implement the TRIPS Agreement, and many argue that the best way of implementing its article 27.3(b) is to follow the model of the UPOV Convention. Some of these advocate compliance with the 1978 Act of the UPOV Convention and others with the 1991 Act. Those favouring the 1991 Act emphasize that this version provides the most extensive protection for plant breeders, whereas those endorsing the 1978 Act maintain that this was the version of UPOV in force when the TRIPS Agreement was adopted. In 1999, the International Association of Plant Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties (ASSINSEL) arranged an international congress with representatives of more than 1000 seed companies, where they recommended that developing countries should adopt sui generis systems based on the 1991 Act.

Norway's continued adherence to UPOV 1978 - while at the same time being a WTO member - shows that it is possible to comply with the provisions on intellectual property rights for plant varieties in the TRIPS Agreement on the basis of UPOV 1978. However, UPOV 1978 was closed for membership in 1998, and new memberships are possible only for UPOV 1991. Countries seeking to implement the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement pertaining to plant variety protection may use UPOV 1978 as a model, but will then not be accepted as members of UPOV. Nevertheless, the Norwegian experiences show that they would fulfil the requirements for compliance with the TRIPS agreement in this regard.

(This text is based on Regine Andersen (2011): Farmers' Rights in Norway - A Case Study)

Pages in this sub-section:
   India's Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act
   Norway's 'no' to stricter plant breeders' rights
   Circumventing the law in the Basque Country
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 In this section:
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal