“The biggest threat to the plant breeding industry is the continued lack of acknowledgement of the breeders’ intellectual property rights.” explains Rafi Karniel from Grapa Varieties who has dedicated his life to the enforcement of plant breeders’ rights. “I have been working on this for over 15 years. There has been a lot of change and much progress in this time, but only in the way in which we, the breeders, develop technologies, systems and methods to fight against piracy to enforce our rights. We are doing important work, for instance, 2 years ago, we established the Breeders Alliance Company for the sole purpose of enforcing IP rights and raising awareness.”
The Breeders’ Alliance company was founded by Sun World International, International Fruit Genetics, SNFL Group and Grapa Varieties Ltd. According to Rafi, this has been working quite well, as the group meets often to discuss enforcement ideas and strategy, take action when required and engage with authorities as well as other organisations in this fight.
“The main problem is still the lack of awareness. First of all, from the consumer perspective. When the consumers go into a supermarket and look at the fresh produce, they don’t know that a variety came from a breeding programme or that the produce is actually a protected variety. Typically, this isn’t something that concerns the consumers, in general. However, it is important to understand that the infringement of Plant Breeders’ Rights is in fact theft. Just as taking punnets of grapes from the supermarket shelves without paying is clearly considered stealing, so is taking vine canes from neighbouring vineyards and propagating them in an unauthorized manner. Unfortunately, to date, these two parallels are not viewed in the same way. As breeders, we invest millions of dollars to create a single commercial variety. If we cannot recoup the investment in our work, we lose the ability to create more varieties which is the base of our evolving industry. Everyone, ultimately benefits from these improved varieties, the growers, the traders, the retailers and the consumers, however, we haven’t yet reached the support level necessary from the entire supply chain to safeguard this process.”
For example, when a grower ships his produce to the market, the importer will check the residue level in the product, MRL (Maximum Residue Levels). “No importer would risk not checking the levels before marketing the fruit, because they understand the consequences if the level is too high, which is why this is standard practice. When it comes to IP rights, there are ways to check that the produce came from a legal origin; referring to a list of authorized producers and/or exporters and carrying out a simple DNA test. Nowadays, with modern technology, one can receive variety identification results in one day, which should cost at max 150 Euro per sample/shipment, that is more or less the cost of an MRL test.”
“One of the key tools currently being developed by the Breeders Alliance is a unified DNA database of all breeders’ varieties.” continues Karniel. “Each suspicious sample submitted for DNA testing, is then compared to the unified database, which gives proof of which variety might be infringed upon. If this leads to a court battle over plant variety rights, the DNA result is submissible evidence. This method can be extended, in any relevant country with the support of the breeders that would provide their DNA database to suitable laboratories. In this way, a grape importer would only need to send a small sample to one of these laboratories in order to confirm the legality of their imported produce. The challenge today is to turn this procedure into common practice. With just a little effort and will, we can ensure the legal origin of the fruit sold in supermarkets. However, the importer will not be motivated to go the extra mile unless, the chain stores who ultimately hold the power insist on it. The chain stores must require their suppliers to vouch that the produce they provide is 100% legal.”
At the moment, Grapa Varieties sends a letter to importers and chain stores across Europe and the UK, listing authorised growers as well as a description of each individual variety. The Breeders’ Alliance Company has also initiated legal monitoring in Europe. “We have hired inspectors to visit chain stores and examine the grapes, any suspicious grapes are then purchased and sent for DNA testing at the laboratory that holds the unified breeders’ database.”
To further our efforts in enforcing effective control over the legal origin of our proprietary varieties, Grapa has adopted an accreditation system, Gesvatec, to assure the traceability and legitimacy of the origin of the grapes by way of using stickers on each marketed box of our varieties. When Grapa informs the traders and retailers about its varieties and authorized suppliers, we ask for them to identify the authorized produce by the Gesvatec stickers as well.
Another strong tool Grapa Varieties is currently using is the AFA (Application for Action). The EU allows titleholders to submit AFA, and in case customs finds suspected illegal shipments of grapes, the breeder is then informed of the possible infringement and holds the right to detain the shipment. “Fresh produce can only be held for 3 days at customs. Therefore, we only have this short time to send our representative to inspect the fruit, take samples, send for DNA testing, and obtain the results to prove whether or not it is our proprietary variety. Thanks to the advances in technology, this is now possible. Both this and last year, we were able to detect illegal shipments and have them destroyed by the local authorities. Grapa has been asked by the authorities to donate the illegal grapes to a national food distribution bank. However, since we do not feel there is a difference between illegal grapes and counterfeit fashion goods, therefore a decision was made to destroy the illegal grapes but in parallel Grapa made a generous donation to the national food distribution bank in lieu.”
“Furthermore, the process at customs is no longer limited to the breeder enforcing their rights against the grower and the exporter, but also against those importing illegal grapes. For instance, the public prosecutor in Italy, can start proceedings against an importer of illegal fruit even if based in another European country. This is a fantastic tool, as it extends the liability and places the onus of confirming the legality of fruit on the individual importing it. It is an endless battle, and only through close collaboration among all key players of the supply chain can we reach the desired outcome where the customer receives controlled safe and quality produce originating from trusted, legal sources.”