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Focus on genetics and IP needed to boost Britain’s horticulture sector

Peter Button

February 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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A recent one-off House of Lords inquiry into the challenges facing the horticulture industry, and the ensuing report entitled ‘Sowing the Seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector’, was a missed opportunity to put the essential genetic research, plant breeding and seed sectors which support the industry on a more secure footing, writes former UPOV Vice Secretary-General Peter Button.


The Government’s recent response to a House of Lords report on the challenges facing the horticulture sector in England was branded ‘inadequate’ and ‘a missed opportunity’ by the NFU for failing to take the issues of worker shortages, spiralling production costs and unfair supermarket contracts seriously enough.


But the report itself was also a missed opportunity to tackle one of the most fundamental threats facing the horticulture sector – access to the genetic innovation which will be crucial for its future viability.   


The original report, entitled ‘Sowing the Seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector’, was published in November 2023. It summarised the findings of a one-off inquiry by a specially appointed Horticulture Sector Committee, chaired by Lord Redesdale, which was established after Ministers cancelled plans for a UK Horticulture Strategy originally promised in the Government’s Food Strategy policy paper in June 2022.


Understandably, the report focused on critical short-term issues affecting the horticulture sector, such as labour availability, energy costs and fairness in the supply chain, because these will affect immediate production and supply issues in the sector. The report also highlighted more structural issues, such as gaps in training and skills, and the need for long-term funding for research and development, “particularly for automation and robotics”.  


But 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. These both called on the Government to support collaborative research into new technologies such as gene editing. Ironically, nearly all the other 165 conclusions and recommendations hinge on an 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 - and opportunities - facing Britain’s vegetable breeders and seed suppliers, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario.


Because the immediate reality of leaving the EU for the UK plant breeding and seeds sector has been a marked increase in regulatory costs, delays and uncertainty. New plant health arrangements have brought major headaches moving seed and breeding material to and from the EU. There is also uncertainty over the potential loss of seed treatment products.


Furthermore, whereas previously varieties listed in any EU member country could be marketed in the UK, now each variety must be registered separately in the UK. Likewise, a variety that was protected under the EU Community Plant Variety Right system was also protected in the UK, whereas now each variety needs to be separately protected in the UK.  These changes represent a significant extra cost and potential delay in making new varieties available to UK growers and, without imaginative measures, will result in fewer varieties being available to UK growers given the relatively smaller size of the UK market.  


And there have been major challenges in the process of registering and protecting new varieties. The UK Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has explained that ‘pressure on public sector resources and an unprecedented number of DUS vegetable applications’ have resulted in delays.


Left unchecked, these operational challenges will have damaging consequences for future access to genetic innovation for growers and their customers. Therefore, it will be important for the UK to adopt a smart approach to registering and protecting new varieties, and to explore all options to minimise costs and time. There are examples of countries that face a similar situation and have found a very efficient solution, such as Switzerland.


A successful horticulture industry absolutely depends on growers having access to the best plant varieties. 


This has always been the case, but climate change makes access to genetic innovation even more critical, with the need to adapt to changes in seasonality, greater weather extremes, droughts and flood, heat stress and new disease and insect pest challenges.


Indeed, climate change is already affecting the production of fruit and vegetables in Europe and other parts of the world, for example with fruit growing areas tending to move north.


Put simply, an approach relying on existing or heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables is not a viable or sustainable basis for a successful UK horticulture sector in the future.


Looking beyond these immediate post-Brexit challenges, however, I believe the greatest benefits will accrue to UK growers if plant varieties are developed in the UK and protected by intellectual property rights, particularly Plant Breeders Rights (PBR). This will ensure investment in further breeding and provide increased opportunities for value to be captured by growers rather than those further down the chain. 


Anyone buying clothes will be aware that the price of branded clothes is not entirely dictated by the retailers. The same is true for horticultural crops.  Over the years, plant breeders have developed innovative, high-quality varieties that attract a premium. For example, 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. 


UK-based research needs to use IP more effectively to capture value for UK growers and to fund future research in a sustainable way

Much of the “pre-breeding” research that underpins commercial plant breeding is often conducted in the public sector.  It is vital to use IP to capture value for those conducting such research because this makes the research more sustainable and also ensures that it is focused on the needs of growers and consumers.   


In the 1930s, for example, the Canadian federal government established a research station to breed sweet cherry varieties.  The breeding programme released many new and successful cherry varieties but without any form of IP protection. Growers from other countries also used these varieties and actively competed against Canadian growers. In effect, Canadian taxpayers were subsidising growers in other countries to compete against their own growers and, until the beginning of the 1990s, sweet cherries remained a fledgling crop in British Columbia with annual sales of only $500,000 (CAD).


The introduction of a Plant Breeders’ Rights Act in Canada dramatically changed the landscape and provided the opportunity for British Columbia growers, in partnership with the federal government, to take control of their future by establishing a new platform to license all new varieties released from the breeding programme both domestically and internationally.


The release of the variety Staccato     dramatically changed the cherry industry. Staccato cherries have a deep red skin and sweet taste, and are late maturing, not ripe for picking until August. This differentiated it from other popular varieties, providing the opportunity to supply later-season cherries to consumers.


This single variety transformed the Canadian cherry sector into a multi-million-dollar industry. The newest varieties are released to Canadian growers first. Over time, the varieties are then licensed for production in other countries. The licensing platform, known as Summerland Varieties Corp. collects PBR-enabled royalties, and channels them back to support the breeding programme, as well as funding other research activities. Thus, a grower-owned licensing company cooperates with the federal government to create a mechanism for sustainable R&D funding. And it does so in a way that ensures the domestic cherry industry maintains a competitive advantage globally (more details are available here and in this video). 


This example shows the importance of IP in ensuring that research delivers benefits for the growers in the country in which the research is conducted.  The USA has also taken a systematic approach to ensuring effective funding of government research through the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act.  The Bayh-Dole Act is a federal law enacted in 1980 that enables universities, non-profit research institutions and small businesses to own, IP protect and commercialise inventions developed under federally funded research programmes within their organisations. This law created a uniform IP policy among the federal agencies that fund research. Congress perceived the need for reliable technology transfer mechanisms and for a uniform set of federal rules to make the process work. The act has stimulated a sustainable innovation pipeline by encouraging more and more institutions to become actively involved in the transfer of technology from the lab to market, including through public-private partnerships. 


One example of how such an approach benefits the USA and growers around the world can be seen in strawberries.  The University of California, Davis’ (UCD) primary focus is to deliver superior genetics and commercial varieties to strawberry farmers in California and worldwide.  Growers in California have earlier access and preferential royalty rates compared to growers in other parts of the USA and in other countries.  At the same time, UCD varieties were the basis for the development of the $1 billion strawberry industry in Spain.  


In an article for Science for Sustainable Agriculture in January 2024, plant scientist Professor Tina Barsby called for a radical rethink of how we regulate and incentivise the delivery of agricultural innovation in the UK, asking why UK leadership in academic science has not translated into leadership in agricultural productivity growth or positioned the UK as a major destination for private sector investment in agricultural innovation.


New plant varieties are one of the most effective means of delivering innovation in a form that directly translates into productivity growth in the horticulture sector. In global terms, the UK is not one of the leaders in developing new plant varieties and does not tend to feature in the top 10 countries - the top 10 countries in 2021 being China, Netherlands, USA, Germany, France, Japan, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Russian Federation and Argentina.


Following Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU Community Plant Variety Rights (CPVR) System, which provides protection in all EU member States.  In general, plant breeders will only release their best varieties where they have protection, so the number of new plant varieties being protected in the UK after Brexit is an important indicator for the future success of UK horticulture.  In 2021, the UK ranked 8th globally in terms of number of PBR applications received from non-UK residents, with 240 applications. The EU ranked first with 871 applications, followed by China, USA, Ukraine, Japan, South Africa and Canada.   


It is clear that the Netherlands punches well above its weight in terms of breeding new plant varieties, particularly in horticulture, which is one reason for the remarkable success of its horticulture sector.  A key factor underpinning that success appears to be a coordinated approach known as the “Triple Helix” or “Golden Triangle” which involves close public-private cooperation between industry, academia and the Dutch government.


So, drawing on these international examples, an ideal scenario would be for new plant varieties to be developed by UK breeders to obtain the greatest competitive advantage for UK growers. However, it is equally important to recognise that this is not realistic in all cases and UK growers will need to have efficient access to plant varieties and material originating from outside the UK.  To ensure this is the case, the UK PBR and National List schemes need to be cost efficient and streamlined, for example using the cooperation mechanisms that exist within the international UPOV system, both at the level of variety DUS examination and advanced IT systems.  


The House of Lords report identified a number of challenges facing the UK horticulture sector. A glaring omission, however, was the existential threat facing Britain’s horticulture breeders and seed suppliers as a result of increased regulatory costs, delays and uncertainty post-Brexit. These must be addressed as a matter of urgency to safeguard vital access to improved varieties for UK growers and their customers.    


However, there are also exciting new opportunities for UK horticulture if research and innovation are encouraged and harnessed to respond to climate change, and if IP is used effectively to help growers create and capture value.  Improved co-ordination of research between industry, academia and government, building on existing clusters to develop scale and critical mass, would help to drive R&D to deliver the best outcomes for the UK. 


Success will depend, like the plants themselves, on developing and sowing the right seeds, and on providing the right environment for them to flourish. 


Peter Button recently retired as Vice Secretary-General at the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), based in Geneva, an intergovernmental organisation whose mission is to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants for the benefit of society. Originally from a UK commercial plant breeding background, Peter previously served in technical advisory roles in the UK with the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF). He is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory board.      





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