Plant breeder's rights (PBRs) provide legal protection for new plant varieties to encourage private investment in plant breeding and commercialisation. A plant variety must be clearly identifiable and distinguishable from other varieties to be eligible for protection. It must be uniform and stable upon propagation.
PBRs grant their owners an exclusive right to exclude others from commercially exploiting their new varieties for up to 25 years. PBRs enhance their owners’ ability to collect royalties while directing the production, sale and distribution of varieties.
Without IP protection, new varieties may be propagated or distributed without the breeder receiving remuneration, resulting in underinvestment. PBRs allow breeders to recoup their investments in cultivating new varieties.
PBR applications and registrations
In 2022, PBR applications in Australia rose by 1.3%, to 301, from their 2021 level. Resident applications fell by 8.5% to 118. Applications by non-residents increased by 8.9% to 183.
Australia’s devastating bushfires in 2019–20 caused economic losses equivalent to 6–8% of Australia’s national agricultural output. The devastation included the loss of crops, impacting breeders and downstream users1. The bushfires were preceded by severe drought over Eastern Australia from 2017 to 2019. A structural break is observed in the PBR application series in 2019 (see Figure 4.1). On average, between 2015 and 2018, 369 PBR applications were filed annually; from 2019 to 2022, the annual average dropped by 19.0% to 299.
While the average level of PBR applications dropped, their rate of growth remained fairly consistent between the pre- and post- bushfires periods: over 2016 to 2018, PBR applications grew by an annual average rate of 2.8%, which was only slightly above the 2.3% annual rate observed from 2020 to 2022.
Figure 4.1 PBR applications and registrations in Australia, 2013 to 2022
A PBR application must pass a substantive examination process and a comparative growing trial to be registered. In 2022, PBR registrations increased by 50.9% on their 2021 level, rising to 175.
Registrations have partially recovered from their significant decline following the 2019–20 bushfires. They fell 23.7% in 2020 and a further 45.3% in 2021. In addition to the reduced application volumes in that period, COVID-19 travel restrictions affected the ability of examiners and plant group experts to attend growing trials.
In 2022, an increase in registrations was observed for resident and non-resident applicants. Australian residents registered 66 PBRs, up 32.0% on their level in 2021. Non-residents registered 109 PBRs, up 65.2% on 2021 levels.
International PBR activity in Australia
Many industries rely on foreign-sourced germplasm (living genetic material such as seeds, plants or plant parts) brought into Australia to improve plant varieties. PBRs facilitate the international transfer of varieties into Australia and the local investments needed to adapt varieties for Australia’s environment2.
Recovery in international filings
Non-residents account for 60.8% of all PBR applications in Australia. As overall PBR application volumes in Australia are relatively small, they are volatile and strongly influenced by the behaviour of individual applicants.
The trajectory of annual change in non-resident applications suggests a gradual recovery path for PBR filings since 2019 (see Figure 4.2). Non-resident filings fell by 36.8% that year. In 2020, non-resident applications rebounded with a growth of 38.8%. As of 2022, non-resident applications appear to follow an inclining growth trend, albeit at a lower absolute level than before 2019.
Figure 4.2 Annual change in PBR applications (%) in Australia by domicile, 2013 to 2022
Countries of origin
The US and the Netherlands have been the leading countries of origin for PBR applications in Australia since 20133. However, in 2022, applications from the Netherlands were exceeded by applications from France, which had more than 10 times the applications than in 2021, from 4 to 46 in total. Applications from the Netherlands fell by 51% to 24 (see Figure 4.3).
Significant growth was also observed in applications from Switzerland, up 58.3% to 19. Applications from New Zealand rose by 36.4% to 15 in total.
Figure 4.3 Leading countries of origin for PBR applications, 2022
Domestic PBR activity in Australia
Economic characteristics of PBR-holding businesses
New plant varieties contribute to productivity growth in many Australian agricultural industries, partly by expanding agricultural production. Research commissioned by IP Australia estimates the net present value of added economic output linked to new cultivars at around $1.5 billion each year4.
The same study found that between 2016 and 2020, an average of 235 Australian firms held PBRs each year. In aggregate, these firms generated around $12.8 billion in turnover each year and employed approximately 78,000 full-time equivalent workers5.
The impact of PBRs includes the added value generated for breeders and economic output in end-use sectors. For example, through their use in pastures, improved forage crops support Australia’s dairy, meat, livestock and wool industries6.
Environmental and policy factors
Australian domestic PBR filings also exhibit a clear structural break around 2019. In the five years to 2019, resident applications grew by an average annual rate of 6.7%. However, from 2018 to 2019, resident applications fell by 13.4%. In contrast to applications by non-residents, domestic filings have followed a declining trend since 2019, suggesting ongoing impacts from the severe drought, bushfires and their associated economic losses.
In 2022, resident applications fell by 8.5% to 118. The decline in resident applications follows three years of negative growth, tapering from −13.4% (2019) to −0.8% (2021).
In contrast, in the five years prior to the devastating bushfires in 2019, resident applications had grown at an annual average rate of 6.7% – more than four times the growth rate in non-resident filings.
Investigating the PBR economic and policy landscape
IP Australia has set up a dedicated program to explore Australia’s plant breeding ecosystem and the role of PBR. In 2022 we published the findings from an initial research program, now available on our website. Read the reports and what we learnt from the research.
We have continued researching the landscape, challenges and opportunities associated with PBR and are proceeding with initiatives we expect to result in changes that benefit the system overall.
These initiatives include reviewing the Qualified Person model, timeframes in the PBR process, public education and awareness, and a scan of issues within the legislation. We also commissioned the University of Queensland to undertake a deep dive into six key policy issues identified for review and possible change. Read the policy reports.
The findings feed directly into IP Australia’s explorations of policy reform and ongoing work to improve IT systems, administrative processes, information and education materials, and forms/paperwork.
Economic research is a cornerstone of this program’s work to ensure that PBRs are fit-for-purpose, support plant breeding industries and connect with the government’s priorities for agriculture and growth.
Our partnership with the Centre for Transformative Innovation (CTI) at Swinburne University of Technology for PBRs economic research continues. In 2022, we published a report and visual summary, providing estimates of PBRs’ economic impact on a national scale. We also published the results and a visual summary of a qualitative research study that interviewed a wide range of people with different roles across PBRs and the plant breeding ecosystem. Read the economic impact report.
Further research is needed to understand the costs and benefits of PBRs, their impact on investment and the incentive to innovate, and the importance of PBRs in commercialising new plant varieties.
We have again partnered with CTI to explore these important questions and the economic impact of PBR at the user level. CTI is undertaking the most comprehensive research survey conducted with Australian organisations using the PBR system to date. The survey is actively pursuing responses from over 450 survey-eligible Australian organisations who have applied for a PBR in the past. We look forward to publishing these findings later in 2023.
The two major plant varieties for which PBR applications are sought are Fruit crops and Ornamentals, followed by non-cereal Field Crops (see Figure 4.4). The increase in PBRs from 2021 to 2022 was largely driven by a 44.8% increase in applications for Fruit crops – applications fell across each of the other lead plant groups.
Figure 4.4 Top five plant variety classes
Key end-use sectors for plant varieties protected by PBRs in Australia include nurseries, cut flowers or cultivated turf, fruit and nuts, broadacre crops and vegetables. Historically, PBR filing activity has been heavily concentrated in varieties sold through nurseries and, to a lesser extent, fruits and nuts. Ornamentals comprised half of all protected varieties in 2013.
However, applications for fruit crops have shown an overall increasing trend since before 2013, while ornamentals have steadily declined. Fruit crops were disproportionately impacted by the events in 2019 (see Figure 4.3) but have since recovered at an average annual growth rate double its rate before that year – 35.7% over 2020 to 2022 compared to 15.1% over 2016 to 2018.
In 2022, the lead domestic filer was Plant Growers Australia (16 applications), a wholesale production nursery based in Victoria. Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, filed the same number of applications (see Figure 4.5).
Other domestic lead filers included Next Progeny (8 applications), an Australian private company that has developed new blueberry varieties; Australian Grain Technologies (7 applications), a market leader in wheat genetics; and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC; 6 applications). The Australian Government established the GRDC to fund projects and partnerships that improve productivity in Australia’s grains industry.
Figure 4.5 Top domestic and international applicants for PBRs in Australia, 2022
The lead PBR filer among international applicants was Agro Selections Fruits (36 applications), a French company specialising in varietal creation, renowned for its doughnut peaches.
Agro Selections was followed by Syngenta Crop Protection (17 applications), an agricultural science and technology provider based in Basel, Switzerland.
Third was Zaigers Genetics (11 applications), a family-owned fruit-breeding business founded in Modesto, California. Zaigers is an active user of plant variety protection in Australia and the US, as are inventors Lowell Glen Bradford and Jon M. Quisenberry, whom each filed nine applications in Australia last year.