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Japanese agricultural products, especially fruits, are highly popular abroad, and the importance of the export market to farmers has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years. However, seeds and saplings developed and registered in Japan have also found their way abroad, where they are grown and sold without permission.

In the extraordinary Diet session beginning Monday, the government wants to partially revise a law to protect new plant varieties and the intellectual property of Japanese growers. Earlier this week, Liberal Democratic Party Diet Affairs Chief Hiroshi Moriyama confirmed the aim was to pass the amendment in the upcoming Diet session, and that without it Japan’s national interests would suffer. But the opposition is wary, afraid the amendment will hurt smaller farmers and raise prices without stopping the outflow of seeds and saplings.

Why does the government want the amendment?

The current law offers nothing in the way of protection to guard against seeds and saplings from agricultural products developed by Japanese farmers, either individuals or corporations, being taken out of the country, where they can then be planted and sold without the permission of the original owner of the seed patent.

In particular, as new varieties of agricultural products are developed, there is growing concern that if they turn out to be popular and profitable, they could be taken elsewhere and sold in violation of the grower’s intellectual property rights.

How big of a problem is this for Japan?

For certain varieties of domestically produced fruits proving popular in China and South Korea, it is already a problem.

In July, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries conducted a survey of domestically registered seeds and saplings being grown outside Japan and being sold via Chinese and Korean-language websites without permission. These included 36 different varieties of products, such as two types of registered strawberries that originated in Shizuoka and Saga prefectures. In addition, there were apples, grapes, pears, peaches and cherries on the websites that were developed by and registered with Ehime, Yamaguchi and Yamagata prefectures or agricultural research laboratories and individuals.

What are the main points that the Diet will debate?

For registered varieties of agricultural products, the holder of the plant breeder’s right will be able to set specific conditions on the seeds or saplings. For example, the breeder can specify if they are for domestic use only or can only be cultivated in a certain area within the country, such as a prefecture. If it is cultivated outside of Japan, this would violate the breeder’s rights. The revisions would also require a product to display the fact it is registered and that it is subject to restrictions.

In addition, the revision means that if farmers want to use the seeds or seedlings of the currently harvested material of a registered variety of product for their next harvest, they would have to get the approval of those who hold the intellectual property right to that variety. At the moment, such approval is not required.

Finally, offenders face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to ¥10 million for individuals and ¥300 million for businesses if they are found guilty of maliciously selling registered agricultural varieties in violation of the law.

Why has there been opposition to the amendment?

The change that forces farmers to get approval from the breeder of a registered product every time they want to carry over its seeds and seedlings for a new harvest has created a lot of controversy.

Farmers, many of whom are supporters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, are upset because they say that, in practice, it will mean they will end up purchasing the necessary seeds every year rather than use the easier and less costly measure of using seeds or saplings taken from the previous harvest. That will drive up unit costs and lead to higher prices.

In May, opposition party members opposed to the amendment expressed doubts about its effectiveness, suggesting that rather than prevent farmers from using seeds and seedlings without permission, border controls on registered agricultural properties should be strengthened to prevent them from being taken overseas without permission. They also worry about an increased financial burden on small farmers, saying the new amendment would really only benefit large corporations which can better afford to absorb any extra costs created by the law, and would lead to monopolistic practices by seed developers.

For its part, the agriculture ministry insists that the amendment applies only to newly developed products and says that for common seed varieties, such as Koshihikari rice and Fuji apples, there would be no restrictions on using seeds and seedlings for the following year’s harvest. But confusion has grown over the bill, which was supposed to be deliberated in the previous Diet session before it got shelved, and even the LDP has admitted that farmers are upset and that it still needs to persuade them, through Diet discussion, that the bill is needed.

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