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Farm-saved seed holds back NZ variety progress

This month I’ve been suffering from déjà vu. The main cause is farm-saved seed (FSS) royalties.

It was an issue I reported on in my early days as an arable reporter for the UK Farmers Weekly. Now, 20 years later, New Zealand’s going through the same debate, although it’s a lower key wrangle because arable farms are a small proportion of the NZ agricultural industry.

That’s probably because the legislation hasn’t been reviewed since before those standards were agreed, which itself says something about the scale of the arable industry here. It’s simply not been a priority for successive governments.

FSS is increasingly popular

Meanwhile, the popularity of FSS has increased putting the local seed industry in a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing prices to cover overheads, prompting ever more growers to farm save. To date, with the exception of milling wheats, FSS has been royalty-free.

Last year it looked like the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement would force NZ to close this legislative loophole and legalise a mechanism for recovery of royalties on FSS; or at least, the New Zealand Grain and Seed Trade Association (NZGSTA) said it would. However, president Trump’s election and immediate withdrawal of the US from TPP torpedoed that argument.

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

Royalty-free FSS

Now, the NZGSTA says New Zealand’s at risk of not getting access to the best cultivars because overseas breeders won’t send them here if growers buy just a few bags every year for multiplication and sow the bulk of their crops with royalty-free FSS. To date there’s no evidence of a restriction in variety supply, but it is a plausible argument.

It’s also been suggested retaliatory action could be provoked, whereby exports of New Zealand seed are affected. With many cereal growers also producing high-value small seeds for export, that’s an argument that’s likely to gain more traction.

Reward for investing in new varieties

Most growers already accept, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that plant breeders deserve a reward for their investment in new varieties. What’s lacking from NZGSTA are figures showing this isn’t happening under the current system, and royalties on FSS are needed to fill the gap.

Provide the figures, and I think all but the most Luddite grower would fall into line.

Mycoplasma bovis outbreak

But FSS isn’t the only issue that’s prompted a sense of déjà vu for me recently. The Mycoplasma bovis outbreak that spurred my blog on biosecurity a couple of months ago was reminiscent of the UK’s foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) epidemic in 2001, in that communications from our Ministry for Primary Industries were appalling in the first fortnight of the investigation.

Fortunately, M bovis isn’t in the same league as FMD, and it’s subsequently been confirmed on only six more farms, all with links to the first.

Hopefully, our ministry has learned some hard lessons from the experience. They need to, because had it been FMD, we’d have been all at sea.