Plant breeders balance shared innovation, revenue

Have you thanked a crop breeder today? Public-sector plant breeders (for example, at public universities) have developed crops for better productivity. As a result, more food is available to feed a growing population.

A group of people prepare different varieties of sweet corn near a field for a taste test..

Sweet corn breeder William Tracy (second from left) and Julie Dawson (third from left), both faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, prepare a sweet corn taste test with summer field crew students. One of the goals of this particular breeding project is to develop ‘culinary corn’ with more intense corn flavor. Photo credit Joan Fischer / UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

This research and innovation requires funding. But funding—and revenue from the crops developed—is increasingly hard to obtain.

In response, a group of plant breeders met in 2016 to discuss best practices. Julie Dawson, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is lead author of a recent paper summarizing their recommendations.

Intellectual property rights can protect crop varieties. And licensing can provide revenue to support further developments. But certain types of intellectual property rights can restrict plant breeders from sharing plant materials. That can limit innovation across the board.

Finding a balance between these needs is tricky. It’s also important: “Crop breeding is critical for the future of agriculture,” says Dawson. “Plant breeding programs benefit farmers everywhere. They also benefit anyone who eats.”

The group has three recommendations. They suggest developing best practices for revenue sharing. They advocate for increased funding for public programs. They also suggest establishing professional standards for sharing plant breeding materials.

Historically, many crop varieties were released to the public with almost no restrictions. “But budgets are getting tighter,” says Dawson. “Grant funding is also becoming more competitive. Public sector plant breeders need to seek other sources of revenue.”

Royalties generated by licensing new crop varieties have been one revenue stream. These royalties are usually shared between universities and their plant breeding programs. But the group finds that the distribution isn’t always equitable.

“Cultivar development can be considered a type of university-sponsored start-up,” Dawson says. “In order to continue the breeding programs a reasonable amount of revenue needs to be returned to those programs. Unfortunately, the workgroup found this is not always the case.”

Two researchers hold carrots, including tops, in the field

Carrot Breeder Philipp Simon (USDA-ARS, Madison WI) and graduate student Charlene Grahn explain their selection for stronger and more vigorous tops to improve carrot competition with weeds and ease of mechanical harvest. This complex trait is important for both conventional and organic production. Photo credit Micaela Colley / Organic Seed Alliance.

Overall funding for public plant breeding programs also needs to increase, according to the group. Public breeding programs train the next generation of researchers and plant breeders. They can also focus on low-return, high-value crops that are less attractive to the private sector.

For example, cover crops may have relatively low monetary returns. That can reduce interest from the private sector. But they have high social or environmental value, such as improving soil quality or reducing erosion.

“Public programs don’t have to be immediately profitable, unlike in the private sector,” says Dawson. “The public sector is able to respond to regional and long-term needs of U.S. agriculture,” says Dawson. “It can do so in ways that are more difficult for private companies that need to turn a profit every year.”

The group also advocates for uniform standards for sharing breeding materials. They recommend using the Wheat Workers’ Code of Ethics as a template. Crop breeders could then work with their universities to better define intellectual property rights and sharable resources.

“Tech transfer offices are usually more familiar with medical or engineering innovations,” says Dawson. “Plant breeders need existing plant material to continue innovating. Restrictive intellectual property rights can shut off this source of research materials. That essentially turns each breeding program into a silo and hinders innovation.”

Read more about the group’s recommendations in Crop Science. Funding for the conference was provided by a conference grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (USDA-NIFA-AFRI 2017-67013-25922) and SeedMatters.

Article originally published at: https://www.agronomy.org/science-news/plant-breeders-balance-shared-innovation-revenue

 

2017 AAS Winner Started at UW Horticulture

The pepper variety named  Aji Rico F1 has been selected as a 2017 All-America Selections (AAS) Winner.

Bred by PanAmerican Seed (Ball), the variety originated in the lab of Jim Nienhuis, Professor in the Department of Horticulture.

Aji Rico is the first of its kind: a hybrid hot pepper from the Capsicum baccatum species that matures early for short-season production or early summer enjoyment. The large plant produces many thin-walled, crunchy fruits which have a narrow conical shape. Fruit matures from green to red and can be eaten at any stage. “Ají” is the term for chili in South America. These fruits have a refreshing citrus flavor and warm heat level, perfect for eating fresh or cooking into salsas or hot sauces. Simply incorporate the desired number of seeds from the pepper to add some heat. Aji also dries well for a flavorful homemade flavorful “paprika.”

All-America Selections is the oldest independent testing organization of flower and edible varieties in North America. AAS Selections have been tested for garden performance by a panel of expert judges. Varieties that perform best over all of North America become AAS National Winners.