The ongoing dispute between a leading South African blueberry grower-exporter and United Exports, a global fruit export business, is now causing major unhappiness locally.
Fruit industry insiders fear that the messy legal battle has the potential to not only negatively compromise the image of Mzansi as a business partner, but subsequently also impacting other fruit industries.
A mud-slinging match between the Western Cape-based Ross Berries and United Exports in Canning Vale in Australia is about intellectual property and plant breeders’ rights.
In different instances in October and November this year, Dutch customs seized OZblu blueberries shipped by Ross Berries. This follows claims from United Exports that its varieties were grown and exported without its permission.
Ross Berries was accused of shipping blueberries to Europe without paying royalties it said were owed for use of its patented OZblu varieties.
Plant breeders’ rights are a form of legislative protected intellectual property rights, requiring application to a statutory body for registration, along with patents, trademarks, and designs.
Is SA’s global-partner status on the line?
Speaking to Food For Mzansi, Jacques Du Preez, manager of trade and markets at the deciduous fruit grower’s organisation Hortgro, alluded that their intention, as the stone fruit industry, is not to meddle in other industries’ issues.
However, they are greatly concerned with the current tug of war and wishes to emphasise the principle of intellectual property rights and honouring of agreements for their industry.
Hortgro’s concern is framed around the perception of Mzansi as a business partner in a globally competitive environment, and the negative impact it could have on other fruit industries.
“Given the potential negative impact on other industries with regard to continued access to the latest global genetics and plant material by the South African fruit industries, Hortgro was requested to express its principled stance on intellectual property and related plant breeders’ rights.”
These materials, said Du Preez, forms the backbone of the country’s continued relevant and internationally competitive industry.
“Therefore, the negative impact such public disputes could have on the broader standing of South Africa as a respected and trustworthy global partner is being regretted,” Du Preez relays.
According to United Exports, Ross Berries was previously licensed to produce OZblu berries under a license held by its related company, Rosle Berries, who later terminated the license.
On 6 November 2020, Rosle Berries (part of the Rosle group of companies) entered a new license arrangement with United Exports for itself only, leaving Ross Berries unlicensed.
However, in a recent court victory in favour of Ross Berries, it was unearthed that United Exports only holds registered plant breeders’ rights to two of the nine varieties that Ross Berries has.
Hopes for a positive outcome
Elzette Schutte, manager of the South African Berry Association (SABPA), confirmed that the dispute is in a very sensitive phase at the moment. “The matter is very complicated and therefore we do not wish to comment on what exactly the issues are. However, we believe it will be sorted.”
The dispute pertaining to ownership of the plants will be determined in March 2021.
In a previous statement, SABPA spelled out its position on intellectual property and plant breeders’ rights in conjunction with the South African commercial law.
In light of the current dispute, the Berry Association said it recognises that intellectual property rights’ owners have the right to charge royalties. Also, “Legal agreements and international convention in this regard need to be honoured on condition that such arrangements are fair, clear and formally agreed to prior to the planting of related plant material.”
As far as plant breeders’ rights and intellectual property are concerned, the Berry Association supports the upholding of the law. “We encourage our members and stakeholders to resolve their interpretations of the above laws and compliance with commercial agreements before shipping fruit to international markets,” it says in a statement.
SABPA says it promotes an industry that is compliant in all aspects of the law and to this end urges global owners of both plant breeders’ and intellectual property rights to continue to engage with their industry.
They welcome continued access to the latest technology, genetics, innovation and plant material available from global sources.