【Editorial】Lessons from South Korean strawberries(March 16)

Strawberry and grape breeds developed in Japan are being taken and produced abroad without permission, taking away export opportunities and resulting in economic losses for Japan. Since high-quality farm produce has big export potential, the government must step up efforts to facilitate registration of domestically-developed varieties in other countries to prevent unauthorized cultivation.

The Japanese women’s curling team that won a bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last month attracted much public attention not only for their performances but also for the snacks, including strawberries, that the team members ate during breaks. The team members praised the taste of South Korean strawberries, but Japan’s farm minister Ken Saito brought the issue up again earlier this month, saying that the attention-grabbing strawberries consumed by the Japanese team had their roots in Japanese varieties taken to South Korea.

According to the farm ministry, varieties originating from Japan are now taking up more than 90 percent of strawberry acreage in South Korea. Japanese breeds, including Tochiotome grown in Tochigi Prefecture and Red Pearl and Akihime developed by Japanese farmers, were taken to the country without permission and were crossbred there to develop new breeds.

The ministry estimates that if the Japanese breeds were registered in South Korea, Japan could have gained yearly licensing fees amounting to 1.6 billion yen. Furthermore, because South Korea is a major exporter of strawberries to other Asian nations, the ministry says Japan lost a maximum of 22 billion yen in export opportunities in the past five years. In 2017, Japan’s strawberry exports totaled 1.8 billion yen in terms of value, and in order to expand Japan’s exports, it is necessary first to take action to prevent unauthorized cultivation.

The same thing can be said of premium Japanese grape variety Shine Muscat which is being taken to China for cultivation. The variety is gaining overwhelming popularity among foreign buyers because it is good-tasting and can be eaten without peeling. Japan’s grape exports are growing sharply, totaling 2.9 billion yen in terms of value in 2017, up sevenfold from five years before. If Chinese farmers start full-scale production of the grapes like South Korean farmers did with Japan-developed strawberries, grape growing regions in Japan will certainly suffer large losses.

There are already many cases in which Japanese farmers had to suffer such losses because they didn’t register their varieties overseas. If they obtain a breeder’s right, they can take countermeasures such as requesting suspension of cultivation or filing damage claims. But growers had been slow to register, since it is time-consuming and costly to go through the registration procedure in each country.

Two years ago, the government finally became serious about tackling the issue amid the growing need to protect Japanese farm produce along with the increase of counterfeit products. The farm ministry launched a project to support growers acquire intellectual property rights to improve conditions for exporting their produce. The ministry allocated funds to subsidize application and examination procedures for variety registration and set up an inquiry desk.

However, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants states that applications to register a plant variety in foreign countries should be filed within four years after it is sold domestically and within six years for trees or vines. The application period under this rule has expired for many high-quality Japanese varieties including Shine Muscat. Moreover, many Asian countries still lack a global-standard plant variety protection system. The Japanese government has been helping such countries to develop such a system, but global efforts are also important to strengthen variety protection.

Once a variety is taken overseas, it is difficult to stop its cultivation. There are concerns that Japanese varieties grown in other countries could be imported to Japan and sold at low prices. There is an urgent need to renew awareness of the importance of intellectual property rights.

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