by Andrés Velásquez.-
After 13 years at the helm of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), Peter Button stepped down from his position as Vice Secretary-General last October during the Annual Session of the organization.
How the landscape has been changing for breeders, the challenges he faced upon arrival, and the future goals of UPOV were some of the topics we discussed with him in this new edition of the Three Questions With...
1.- You have been dedicated to plant breeder innovation and protection throughout your entire career, and 13 years ago, you were appointed as Vice Secretary General of UPOV, one of the most important positions in this sector. What was the breeding innovation scenario like in 2010? What were the main challenges, and how does the landscape look for breeders today?
Plant breeders have always had many challenges in order to produce varieties suited to the evolving needs of farmers, growers, distributors and consumers. However, it is clear that climate change has added a new dimension to that work. For example, in the fruit sector, we can already see that the historic areas for growing certain crops are now less suitable and production is starting to move to different areas. We have also seen that new diseases and strains are emerging as the climate changes. This can also impact on phytosanitary measures, which can make it more difficult for plant breeders to obtain protection around the world. To keep pace with the traditional and new challenges, plant breeders will need to utilize technology and this will require an effective system of intellectual property rights to underpin the investment needed.
Plant breeders have always embraced technology to advance their breeding goals. Back in 2010, marker-assisted breeding and genetic modification (GM) were already being used in breeding programs, as far as regulatory approval permitted. The difference in the regulatory landscape for GM meant that there have been differences in the innovations in different parts of the world; the same technologies that have transformed crop production in some parts of the world have effectively been absent in others. The situation with the new wave of gene-editing technology seems to be following a different path, with a large degree of convergence on regulation that is likely to enable plant breeders around the world to have the same opportunities to use the technology.
New technologies, such as gene-editing and artificial intelligence, have the potential to allow plant breeders to speed up the development of varieties, which is crucial given the challenges ahead. To ensure that the potential is realized, it is important that there is investment in plant breeding, using all relevant tools and technologies. An effective system of plant variety protection will remain a crucial element because, whatever technologies are used, it is always a variety that is delivered to farmers and growers – and that is what is protected under the UPOV system. It will be important that the UPOV system encourages plant breeding using all tools and technologies. It should also ensure that plant breeders can release their new varieties as quickly as possible, safe in the knowledge that their investment is protected. There are a number of factors involved in this equation, such as provisional protection, the coverage of propagating and harvested material, the scope of essentially derived varieties, cooperation in DUS examination and the perennial issue of enforcement of the breeder’s right. At a time of new and rapidly evolving challenges, plant breeders will need to ensure that their issues and needs are communicated to all relevant authorities in an effective way.
2.- Digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, and the implementation of new technologies in almost every process have changed the daily work of breeders and the entire sector. What has been the impact in terms of protection? What is UPOV implementing to face these changes? What other issues, beyond technology or AI, will be the future challenges for UPOV?
As a small organization with limited resources, UPOV has been keen to embrace technology as a means of improving our effectiveness. Over the years, we have been able to obtain substantial benefits. We started with distance learning, which has enabled us to educate thousands of people about plant variety protection with minimal resources, thanks also to the tutoring of experts from UPOV members. Many years ago, digitalization also eliminated the need to produce paper documents; we were ahead of most organizations in taking that step.
However, in the last 5 or 6 years, technology has really become a game-changer for our work. The travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic was an important factor; we immediately decided to use technology – virtual meetings – to continue our work. We did not cancel or postpone a single UPOV body meeting. As a result of embracing technology we were able to continue our work and substantially reduce our travel costs in the short and longer term. This also had the knock-on effect of allowing us to invest in technology to support the UPOV system. In 2017, we had already introduced the UPOV PRISMA online application system (see https://www.upov.int/upovprisma/en/index.html), which has many benefits for plant breeders.
However, we wanted to go further and to digitalize the whole UPOV plant variety protection (PVP) system, so that all UPOV members could have an electronic administration system and we could facilitate electronic exchange of reports on distinctness, uniformity and stability (DUS). We saw that blockchain technology provided us with the possibilities to develop such a system; however, this was a significant risk because it was a new technology and there were no other similar organizations that had used this technology. After considerable reflection on the pros and cons, we decided to take the plunge. This proved to be a good decision. Because we were ahead of nearly everyone else our external IT developers were keen to work on this field and we had access to the best experts on great terms.
The outcome is that we launched UPOV e-PVP (https://www.upov.int/upovepvp/en/index.html) in September, with Viet Nam becoming the first country to use all the package of UPOV e-PVP modules:
UPOV PRISMA: online application tool for making applications to PVP Offices
UPOV e-PVP Administration Module: digitalized system for PVP offices to manage applications and grants, communicate with applicants and holders, publish information and transmit data to the PLUTO Database
UPOV e-PVP DUS Report Exchange Module: platform for PVP offices to exchange DUS reports
PLUTO database: information on plant varieties
UPOV e-PVP also provides the basis for platforms for UPOV member cooperation in the administration and examination of applications. For example, this will allow plant breeders to use a single, composite application form covering several countries and the aim is that a single DUS examination will be sufficient for all the countries participating in the platform. E-PVP Asia is already under development.
Aside from all the operational benefits of UPOV e-PVP, one of the great advantages of UPOV e-PVP for all users is the safety and security provided through UPOV´s cooperation with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
I am sure that other technological developments will bring benefits in the near future. UPOV is already working on machine translation, which will offer the possibility to make information available in all languages at minimal cost. And AI will also certainly enable organizations with limited resources, such as UPOV, to provide high quality and relevant information to a vastly increased number of people.
3.- Generating consensus on breeders' rights is one of the main challenges in our sector, and to achieve this, every company and organization is important. In your opinion, how crucial is collaboration among the various players in the sector? How can more and better synergies be created between companies, breeders' associations, authorities and key leaders to promote innovation and plant breeders' protection?
It is crucial for plant breeders to have a voice because the UPOV system is there to encourage their work in providing farmers and growers with the varieties they need to serve the needs of all of us. We need to hear that voice to understand if the needs of plant breeders are changing as a result of factors such as climate change, technological developments etc. Clearly, that voice will be more effective if it is coordinated. I have been greatly encouraged in recent years that the breeders´ organizations are increasingly focused on working together rather than working in isolation on their own priorities. The challenges ahead are daunting and we need everyone to understand the big picture when developing their positions and presenting their views.
Plant breeders need to be innovative and we need to ensure that innovation is encouraged by PVP. This can sometimes mean that it is difficult to reach a consensus on PVP in relation to new developments, such as the impact of new technologies. In these cases, it is vital that we have a means of monitoring developments and that UPOV and UPOV members are ready and prepared to respond when needed.
UPOV has an important role to play in providing a forum where plant breeders can report on developments and issues. Now is a good time to place a focus on this role in the current context of climate change, emergence of new plant breeding technologies and economic pressures. It is apparent that these developments have an impact on matters such as enforcement of the plant breeder´s right, understanding of propagating and harvested material, essentially derived varieties, method of DUS examination and cooperation in DUS examination. An important step will be for UPOV members to learn more about developments around the world; this may mean a new approach within UPOV to ensure that there are more opportunities for information to be shared, particularly through opportunities to see different situations around the world.
However, returning to the big picture, it is important not to forget the basics. One of the most important areas in which plant breeders and breeders' associations need to work together with authorities is in helping countries to develop an effective PVP system and become a UPOV member. In non-UPOV member countries, there is typically a lack of plant breeders to explain the benefits for a country to join UPOV, simply because people do not have a means to invest in becoming plant breeders. And this means that there are often no associations to represent plant breeders. In these cases, global organizations such as CIOPORA have an important role to play in explaining the benefits that UPOV membership would bring.