The pirates we are talking about don't wear hooks or eye patches, but they plunder about one hundred million Euro per year from the Spanish agricultural sector. In the short or medium term, this powerful R&D sector in Spain may be under threat. Genetic improvement is already the main added value to many crops, and it turns out that Spain has some fifty pioneering companies in the sector, making it a technological powerhouse in Europe. But the systematic seed piracy could lead many of them to abandon research if they don't later receive the corresponding royalties.
"We develop more resistant varieties, which yield healthier fruits and vegetables, and we need to protect the investment needed for all that research." Developing each variety takes ten or twelve years of research and we have companies with hundreds of varieties in its portfolio. If illegal multiplication gains ground, not only will there be companies thinking twice before making that effort, but there will also be products in the market without the necessary phytosanitary guarantees," explains the general secretary of ANOVE, Antonio Villarroel.
Spain is, after the Netherlands, the world leader in research in this sector. It is not the country that produces the most, but it is the one exporting the most fruit and vegetables across the world. 24 research centers are distributed throughout the Spanish territory. Virtually all the major companies in the world have research centers, mainly in Murcia and Almeria. It is a Silicon Valley of sorts, where vegetable varieties are developed for their later use in all climates, including the US, the Mediterranean and Asia. "Those seeds, when they are shipped to other countries, especially to the East, but also to European countries, are sometimes reproduced illegally and end up back in Spain in an illegal form, competing with the companies that actually made this research possible," explains Villarroel.
It is estimated that 50% of the cereal seeds in use in Spain are pirated. 53% of the nurseries inspected by the police in 2016 lacked the proper authorization to reproduce protected varieties. The seeds annually generate 600 million Euro, but the royalties barely exceed 4 million, far from the figures achieved by France (5.7 million), Germany (35) or the United Kingdom (26).
The use of certified seeds increases the production costs per hectare by 0.2% and small farmers are fully exempt from the payment of fees, but pirate seeds are still used, especially in the case of cereals in the two Castiles, fruit trees, such as peaches or nectarines, in Aragon and Catalonia, and blueberries and berries in southern Spain. "We need to take this seriously," insists Villarroel. "The protection of intellectual property is an indicator of a country's development, so piracy is undoubtedly associated with problems in this area. We have made great progress in Spain, but we need greater awareness. We have optimal conditions to become the world's number one as far as seeds are concerned." It is worth recalling that "people are already talking about us as a laboratory for climate change," thanks to the discovery of varieties that adapt to modifications in the climate, "but all this will not be possible if the rules of the game are not respected, because otherwise, investors will flee."
The Spanish fruit and vegetable sector is currently subject to fierce competition from Turkey, Italy and Greece; competitors over which the Spanish breeders have an advantage. Putting a new, more competitive variety of tomatoes on the market, for example, costs a company about three million Euro, which results in greater resistance to plant diseases, higher productivity, better organoleptic conditions and presentation. In other cases, such as that of fruit trees, the testing and selection goes on for much longer due to the cultivation cycles and easily reaches 12 years.