By Nishel Fernando
Sri Lanka’s fruit and vegetable producers, processors and exporters recently urged the government to enact the long-delayed Plant Varieties Protection Bill, commonly known as plant breeder’s rights law, to boost fruit and vegetable exports by attracting investments into research and development of new plant materials and | seed varieties.
“For commercial agriculture to succeed, the farmer must have access to the best available inputs with seed and planting material being the first item on the list. This will enable him to supply in demand produce, have better yields and make him more competitive.
While importing the best available seed, how do we enable innovation and development of our own varieties? Our laws do not protect property rights in relation to planting material. This is disincentive for companies to invest into research and development of new varieties. Further, it prevents the latest patented varieties of seed from being imported to Sri Lanka as they have little protection under our laws,” Lanka Fruit and Vegetable Producers, Processors and Exporters Association (LFVPPEA) Incoming President Suresh Ellawala pointed out.
He was addressing the LFVPPEA’s 38th Annual General Meeting in Colombo, last Friday.
At present, Sri Lanka doesn’t have intellectual property protection for plant varieties, making the country a non-compliant to the agreement on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
Although Sri Lanka enacted its intellectual property rights law to comply with the WTO’s TRIPs Agreement in 2003, it does not provide protection for plant varieties, as it does not allow patenting of plants.
Hence, Ellawala urged the country’s political leaders and administrators to pass the proposed Plant Varieties Protection Bill into law as a matter of urgency.
Sri Lanka had drafted a bill on plant varieties protection as way back as 2001. However, it’s yet to be enacted by Parliament.
Ellawala noted that the bill wasn’t enacted due to false fears of infringing on rights of farmers.
“It has not been enacted due to fear of infringing on rights of farmers but to my understanding, the act addresses their concerns,” he pointed out.
A study carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) illustrated that Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector has faced several difficulties, especially in international trade, due to the delay in complying with the TRIPS Agreement while missing several opportunities to gain patent rights to other countries.
“The case of Kothalahibutu (Salacia Reticulate) is a clear example of this. Sri Lanka lost the opportunity to gain patent rights to utilise this plant variety and produce medicinal products and it instead went to Japan due to lack of legal protection for plant varieties and also due to lack of interest and unawareness of the public. The patent granted to the Japanese company prevents future generations of Sri Lanka from using and producing similar drugs,” the IPS study pointed out.
Further, Ellawala noted that the existence of several domestic non-tariff barriers, which include certain procedural and informational restriction, stand against enhancing agricultural exports.
The association also called the government to develop land policies and laws in order for farmers to have a viable plot size to generate the level of income required to remain in the industry.
Due to these barriers, Sri Lanka’s fruit and vegetable export sector has failed to take off during the past several years.
Sri Lanka earned US $ 85 million from vegetables, fruits and flowers and foliage exports in 2018, marginally below the export figures of 2017.
“If we want to move forward, we need to look hard at the bottlenecks mentioned previously and bring about the change,” Ellawala stressed.