Outstanding in their field: meet Ashley Balchin and Renée Cloutier, CFIA plant breeders' rights examiners
Despite Canada's four seasons, it's easy to buy your favourite flowers, fruit and greenhouse-grown vegetables year-round.
Plant breeding has helped to make this all possible by delivering higher yields, increased tolerance to diseases and pests and boosting nutritional value.
Today's breeders range from hobbyists to professional researchers. They can apply to protect the significant time and resource investment that goes into creating new crop varieties—in the same way inventors protect their work with patents. This form of intellectual property is called plant breeders' rights.
Every year in Canada, plant breeders submit applications for these rights. Ashley Balchin and Renée Cloutier, two world-renowned experts at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), get to work directly with applicants whose varieties go on to strengthen and diversify the availability of crops, produce and ornamental plants in Canada.
Let's take a closer look at the significance of their work at home and abroad.
Understanding plant breeders' rights in Canada
Plant breeders' rights play an important role in Canadian agriculture—not to mention in your own backyard. It results in plants that are more resistant to disease, insects, drought, cold and other unideal growing conditions. It also results in plants with special traits that help them thrive.
An effective plant breeders' rights system inspires innovation, supports farmers and helps the horticulture and agriculture sectors remain competitive. It also gives you more choices when you shop.
Applying for plant breeder's rights is voluntary and does not take precedence over the regulatory requirements in the Plant Breeders' Rights Act, which was first implemented in 1990. This ensures legal protection for plant breeders who develop new plant varieties and establishes their intellectual property rights.
Owners of a new variety must demonstrate that it is:
- new to the market
- distinct from all varieties of common knowledge
- uniform in its relevant characteristics and
- stable over time, consistent in its description from generation to generation
Ashley and Renée are an integral part of the process of obtaining plant breeders' rights.
Both experts studied at the University of Guelph, where their love for plant science flourished.
Ashley's interest in agriculture and plant science led her to pursue a Bachelor's degree in biology. She spent summers working for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. As a fourth-generation public servant, she's proud of the positive impact her work has on the entire country.
Renée, intrigued by plant adaptation and physiology, received a Ph.D. in horticultural studies. After graduating, she worked as an efficacy evaluator in the CFIA's Fertilizer Program and eventually joined the Plant Breeders' Rights Office. She enjoys working with a range of applicants and takes pleasure in helping to protect their intellectual property.
The CFIA's Plant Breeders' Rights Office receives about 330 applications every year. These two plant breeders' rights examiners screen and verify new varieties of all types of plants so that Canadian breeders can protect their innovations.
"Everyone in our office is so supportive of each other, and everyone plays a critical role in delivering our mandate," says Renée.
Ashley echoes those sentiments: "Collectively, we thrive on continuous improvement, always striving to be better at what we do. It is truly a team environment and team effort."
Leadership on the world stage
International travel is also part of the job. Ashley and Renée use Canada's strong framework to bolster plant breeders' rights and plant science globally.
In 2020, Ashley and Renée were appointed to the role of Chairpersons in the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). This recognition from their peers as world-renowned plant breeders' rights experts is an amazing feat and a source of pride for the CFIA.
UPOV is an organization that encourages effective global systems for plant variety protection. Canada has been a member since 1991, which gives the country's plant breeders the ability to protect their own plant varieties internationally by filing plant breeders' rights applications in other countries and benefit from better access to protected foreign varieties.
Along with other examiners, Ashley and Renée travel across Canada during the growing season to examine different types of plants. At other times of the year, they're in touch with applicants and publish entries in the CFIA's Plant Varieties Journal.
Renée has worked on training and capacity-building in Senegal – when the country was seeking international assistance to implement a robust plant breeders' rights framework in a French-speaking environment. As a bilingual examiner, Renée was thrilled to share insights about Canada's well-established framework and experiences with Senegalese experts.
Ashley has also represented Canada on the global stage. She previously worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide training on examinations. Now she's joining forces with experts in Trinidad and Tobago to increase opportunities for plant breeders and plant breeders' rights. This collaboration has led to activities with other Caribbean countries, like Jamaica.
She says, "Canada is well-positioned as a bilingual country with a well-respected plant breeders' rights system that has been in place since 1990."
Whether it's helping to establish a framework for plant breeders' rights in other countries, ensuring that horticulturalists can protect their innovations or facilitating Canadian farmers' access to the best varieties, Ashley and Renée agree that this fascinating area of intellectual property protection has a widespread impact.
The next time you enjoy your favourite fruit or greenhouse-grown veggies, remember that you're tasting years of exciting innovations enabled by the hard work of experts like Ashley and Renée.
If you're hungry to learn more about plant breeding and intellectual property rights, visit the CFIA's comprehensive guide for more information.
- Plant Breeders' Rights Office
- Plant Breeders' Rights…what are they?
- International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV)
- What the world can learn from Canada's approach to UPOV (Germination by Seed World Group)
- IP Canada Report 2020 (Canadian Intellectual Property Office)
- Video (short version, long version): Canadian cherry growers benefit from government policy (UPOV)
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