‘Keeping control of cultivation and profits’: Japan passes bill to IP-protect high-value local produce

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

The Japanese government has approved a bill to increase the intellectual property (IP) protection over local high-value produce. ©Getty Images
The Japanese government has approved a bill to increase the intellectual property (IP) protection over local high-value produce. ©Getty Images

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The Japanese government has approved a bill to increase the intellectual property (IP) protection over local high-value produce in a bid to prevent these from being illegally exported and planted overseas, losing control over further cultivation, sales and profits.

The bill stipulates an amendment to Japan’s Seed and Seedling Protection Law which is expected to be enforced come April 2021. Plans for this have been in progress​ for a number of years.

“In recent years, [we have noticed that various] excellent varieties of Japanese produce has flowed overseas, from where the production of these was increased and then exported to yet other third countries,” ​the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) said via an official statement.

“[For example, high-value] grapes and strawberries developed in Japan were leaked overseas and exported and produced in third countries, [and some] cherries were [also] transferred to Australian farmers without permission, and these places turned into production areas. 

“There is a concern that produce variety development in Japan will be affected by this, [and] it is an infringement of the rights of the original produce breeders, [so] we believe that it is necessary to revise the law to protect new varieties more effectively.”

Tabling this bill to the Japanese parliament (the Diet), MAFF Minister Kotaro Nogami also stressed that the ministry wanted to make sure the IP-holders would be able to protect their rights more efficiently.

“In order to effectively protect registered varieties, it is also important for [the IP right] holders to be able to easily prove infringement of their rights,”​ he said.

“As such, the two main components of this bill comprise preventing the outflow of registered varieties overseas [without permission by] the IP holder, and to take measures to make it easier to utilize these rights [by adjusting the system.”

Under this amendment, the developers of registered produce varieties who hold the IP rights will be able to block any reproduction of these from seeds collected without consent, and will also be able to get an order to halt any illegal production and sales of these.

“In addition, any advertisement and packaging of these registered produce varieties will need to indicate their status as registered varieties [in Japan], and that there are restrictions on the export destination country or cultivation location,”​ said Minister Nogami.

Individuals who attempt to violate this law and illegally bring any registered seeds or saplings of registered varieties abroad will be subject to a penalty of up to JPY10mn (US$96,700) or a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Japan’s high-value produce varieties

Of note though is that this amendment will only apply to newly propagated varieties that are registered from date of enforcement, but will not be able to ‘rescue’ existing high-value products that have already been spread overseas.

Some of the most well known products that have been subject to such controversy include Shine Muscat grapes from Nagano prefecture, known to be especially sweet and juicy, and various strawberries developed for flavour, appearance, texture or other properties, often replanted (and then laid claim to) by countries such as China or South Korea.

MAFF also listed a variety of ‘Native Fruits of Japan’ on its website, including the Musk Melon from Shizuoka prefecture, Kosui pear from Chiba prefecture, Nagano purple grapes from Nagano prefecture and Shinano apples from Nagano prefecture. These varieties are usually developed by many generations of cross-breeding for selected properties.

Importantly, these high-value varieties are often considered luxury items, and are usually sold at exorbitant prices overseas - for example, Shine Muscat grapes can sell for up to 10 times the price (around CNY600 or US$93) of locally-produced grapes in China, but many of these are imported from South Korea. Malaysia also sells 'Japan Shine Muscat' grapes and 'Korea Shine Muscat' grapes in supermarkets at prices well over those of regular grapes, with the latter often priced slightly lower than the former.

MAFF has also stressed that these regulations only concern specific registered produce varieties, and traditional native varieties or any of those that are generally used by farmers will not be affected.

“It is not possible to newly register general varieties – Anyone attempting to register a variety whilst aware that it is a general variety may be punished under the Seed and Seedling Law for fraud,”​ said the ministry.

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