Derk Gesink, 42, is a rarity in the potato industry. For the past 20 years, he’s worked as both a breeder and grower of potatoes. Today, Gesink is one of over 40 breeders working for the Dutch potato breeding company HZPC, located in Joure in the Netherlands, developing seed potato varieties that match local growing conditions.
While most Dutch potato breeders are retired potato farmers who breed as a hobby, Gesink has been breeding as long as he’s been farming. Gesink, who lives in Mensingeweer, grows 500 acres of potato, sugarbeets, onions, wheat and English rye grass. Of those, 220 acres are devoted to potato.
Gesink sees himself as an anomaly in the industry.
“It’s an interesting case for a grower who is pro plant variety protection,” he said. “I see the pros and I see the cons.”
One of the cons, Gesink said, is the increasing speed at which the industry moves.
“If you have done pre-breeding for a long time, let’s say you have worked for more than 30 years to introduce this resistance gene in a single generation,” he said. “This is becoming more and more a problem because breeding speed is accelerating. Through new breeding techniques, it takes less and less time to develop a new variety.”
One of the big pros is that breeders’ work is protected and they are properly compensated for their hard work. It wasn’t always like this in the Netherlands, Gesink said, who explained how Dutch people suffered from mass starvation during World War II.
Not wanting to face similar problems in the future, the government made agriculture a focus, investing time and money into making pre-breeding material with the goal to develop genetic variation adapted to local conditions. After the ’90s, there was little urgency on the government’s part to finance public breeding programs. Food security had, after all, been attained. Instead, the government put the onus on the private sector, Gesink said. This, in turn, created a stronger need for plant variety protection (PVP).
It isn’t just Dutch potato breeders who benefit from PVP, though. Breeders all over the world who have bred unique varieties of a sexually reproduced plant or tuber-propagated plant can apply for plant variety protection. Those who can apply include individuals, public institutions and private companies.
The agency responsible for the protection of plant varieties in Europe is the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO). It has been in operation since 1995. Its headquarters are in Angers, France. CPVO’s system is based on the principles of the 1991 act of the UPOV Convention, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. Protection is provided for 25 years, or for 30 years in the case of vines, potatoes and trees.
In the United States, many growers take advantage of PVP, which is offered through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), said Plant Variety Protection Office (PVPO) commissioner Paul Zankowski. On average, 27 new potato PVP applications are filed each year – a number that has been steadily increasing since 2010.
“Providing this protection to plant breeders is a strong incentive for them to invest the time and money to develop new improved varieties,” Zankowski said. “It is the new varieties that are crucial to our continued agricultural production at levels that provide us food security.
“Recently, PVPO has made great progress on improving the PVP application process, working with international partnerships and setting up the electronic PVP application system that allows applications to be filed, processed and tracked in real- time,” he said. “Making the application process easier for growers will help more plant breeders to take advantage of this service.”
Most PVP applicants in the U.S. are from private industry, Zankowski said. For potato, 11 percent of the applicants are from public institutions, 20 percent domestic industry and 69 percent foreign breeders.
“Getting PVP protects breeder’s innovation, and in doing so creates an incentive to develop new varieties,” he said.
PVP certificates are recognized worldwide and help to speed up foreign plant variety protection application filing, Zankowski said. He explained how working with the European Union to cooperate in PVP examination aids in the plant breeder’s ability to obtain PVP in as many countries as possible without duplicate efforts. The U.S. system has three parts: PVP for seed and tuber propagated plants, plant patents for asexually propagated plant, and utility patents for all plants.
“Breeders filing for protection in the U.S. have these options available, depending on their requirements,” he said. “Most of the world has only the PVP/Plant Breeder’s Rights option available.”
On average, certificates are issued within 18 months of the initial application being filed.
Beyond the U.S. border, an intergovernmental organization, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), was established for the protection of new plant varieties at the international level, thereby encouraging their development. Under UPOV, new varieties must meet a number of criteria in order to obtain plant breeders’ rights.
“PVP is based on the international criteria for determining that a variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable,” Zankowski said.
There is a difference between PVP and plant and utility patents, though. For one, plant and utility patents are based primarily on the principles of novelty, non-obviousness and usefulness. PVP and patents also differ in their novelty requirements.
For PVP, a variety can be sold for up to one year in the U.S. or four years outside the country to be considered new and eligible for PVP, he continued. Patents allow for only one year of public disclosure (i.e. sale, public use or publication) anywhere in the world to remain eligible for patent filing. Once the application has been filed, PVP also provides provisional protection. Other differences include the PVP research exemption, right to save seed and public usage provision.
Under UPOV, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants was established. While the convention was first established in Paris in 1961, it was later revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991. As of October 2015, UPOV has 74 member countries, including all of North America, most of South America and Europe, as well as Russia, China and Australia.
Not all countries came under compliance when the convention was revised in 1991. Canada, for instance, didn’t come into compliance until February 2015. Anthony Parker, commissioner, Plant Breeders’ Rights Office, Canada, explained that the legislative amendment process can be slow in Canada, particularly during election years and especially under minority governments. However, coming into compliance has had positive effects for the breeding sector. Specifically, it has increased investment and paved the way for new partnerships, particularly for domestic seed companies who look to work with foreign breeders, Parker said.
Before coming into compliance, the country processed just 25 applications per year on average. In 2015, that number jumped to 59, more than doubling. Seven percent of all applications are for the potato sector.
“We’re seeing more applications now, mostly from foreign breeders,” Parker said. Back in the Netherlands, Gesink mentioned his preference for working with UPOV members.
“We’re not eager to sell the potatoes to non-UPOV members because we’re not protected,” he said.
Parker understands this well, especially after having seen a shift from reluctance to willingness to work with Canadian breeders.
“Foreign breeders are certainly more willing to bring their varieties to Canada,” Parker said. “If adopted, that gives Canadian producers more choice in potato varieties they wish to access and creates new markets for them as well.”
“It can also [in the] long-term spur on a stronger domestic breeding industry if it’s embraced by potato breeders here in Canada,” he said.