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International relations

Japan teams with Southeast Asia to protect its prized fruits

Experts will help install law that guards against intellectual property theft

Strawberries are at the heart of a spat between Japan and South Korea over protections for original plant products.

TOKYO -- As newly bred Japanese strawberries and cherries that are sweeter and juicier than previous kinds hit the market, they are increasingly copied by farmers overseas, infringing on intellectual property rights.

The Japanese government has decided to help countries in Southeast Asia, an area that especially lacks protections for new plant varieties, enforce intellectual property rights for newly developed varieties of farm produce.

The country's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will send experts to eight Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia, to help devise laws and review processes so that they can join the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, or UPOV.

Among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations economic community, only Singapore and Vietnam are part of the international convention. Countries that lack protections for new plant varieties can find it harder to attract foreign agriculture investment.

Japan, China and South Korea have agreed to cooperate with ASEAN to develop by 2027 a system for the bloc that meets global standards for protecting the rights of plant breeders.

The three East Asian countries are among the 75 nations and jurisdictions in UPOV, whose members provide robust protections against unauthorized cultivation or sales.

The issue of agricultural intellectual property rights is of particular interest to Japan. The country takes pride in strawberry varieties such as Tochiotome and Akihime, but the agriculture ministry says more than 90% of strawberries grown in South Korea are hybrids of Japanese types, bred before Seoul put plant protections in place.

The ministry estimates that Japanese strawberry farmers lose up to 4.4 billion yen ($39.1 million) per year from lost opportunities due to South Korean exports.

The issue reignited during February's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, when the Japanese women's curling team was seen eating and praising South Korean strawberries. That prompted Japanese Agriculture Minister Ken Saito to point out in March that the strawberries probably had their roots in Japan and to call for broader registration of fruit varieties overseas.

China joined the UPOV in 1999, but its protections apply to a limited range of produce.

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