Is there protectable intellectual property in an agricultural product?

It is a moot point. Whilst there are agricultural patents in the US, plants must have been bred asexually and have unique DNA. In the EU by contrast plants obtained through conventional breeding processes are not patentable.

The Japanese government begs to differ. In April a new law, the Plant Variety Protection and Seed Act came into force. It aims to protect the leakage of Japan’s fruits and plants to neighbouring markets.

sushi police to protect against alien Japanese food
The sushi police anime

It is all too reminiscent of the sushi police, another lampooned initiative to curb the spread of ‘fake’ Japanese food around the world.

Shine Muscat grapes can retail in Japan for over JPY1500 (US$12) a bunch, have high sugar content and are renowned for their sweet, floral flavour. The breed was originally developed by horticulturists at Uehara Grape Research in the 1980s. 

Shine grapes quickly became a local delicacy, a fact which did not go unnoticed by neighbours in China and Korea who started growing their own versions – for even higher prices!

Japan’s agricultural ministry believes it has lost over $200m due to its seedlings being grown overseas. It now has a list of 2000 fruits and vegetables whose seeds cannot be exported.

How this is going to be enforced, I cannot imagine. 

Is the Japanese Government acting in the industry’s best interests? I am not sure, there is an argument that if goods are too expensive, few buy them regularly.

A better step, if the agricultural ministry wants to protect IP, is to avoid generic brand names. ’Shine’ grapes will be hard to register in most jurisdictions.