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Lessons to be learned from Marquis wheat

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Cross breeding of plants to produce new varieties is a relatively recent science, little more than 100 years old. Improving plant varieties by selection, on the other hand, has been going on for about 10,000 years. All cross breeding, or modern plant breeding, is built on that first 10,000 years during which farmers around the world created an astounding legacy.

One hundred years ago, no one owned plant varieties. Plant breeders around the world co-operated by sharing germplasm and passing on new discoveries. The creation of Marquis wheat, forerunner of nearly all bread wheats in western Canada, illustrates how plant breeders built on the legacy left by generations of farmers. Marquis is a cross between Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta. Red Fife was brought from Scotland, by a farmer who got the seeds from a Polish ship that carried wheat from the Ukraine. It was given to another Scottish farmer in Ontario, David Fife.

Hard Red Calcutta came from India, but it was a type of wheat rather than a single variety. Crossed with Red Fife and carefully selected for several generations, it yielded Marquis wheat. By 1918, Marquis was grown on more than 20 million acres, from northern Saskatchewan to southern Nebraska. James Boyle of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University said this about Marquis wheat: "The greatest single advance in wheat ever made by the United States was the introduction of that class of hard spring wheat known as Marquis wheat. The idea came to us free of charge from the Dominion of Canada's cerealist, Sir Charles E. Sanders."

The development of Marquis expanded wheat production and brought agricultural and economic prosperity. It also brought great numbers of immigrants to the southern parts of the three western provinces.

The development of Marquis wheat is a story of co-operation. Co-operation, whether wittingly or not, between farmers of that day in Poland, the Ukraine, Scotland, India, Canada and the United States, and farmers from thousands of years before, whose careful work in selecting and preserving wheat seeds made all the other co-operation possible. This co-operation occurred because people recognized the importance of progress and development, and they knew it would only happen if people shared their knowledge.

Contrast this with the story of Larry Proctor and the yellow bean. Larry Proctor was a Colorado farmer who went to Mexico in 1994 and brought back some unusually colored beans. They were cream-colored, with a yellow hue, or so he said. Proctor planted the seeds. He claims that, generation after generation, (all five of them) he selected for deeper yellow color. With each generation, Proctor says, the roots ran deeper than other bean plants; the plants were more resistant to drought.

This was special, Proctor thought, and he wanted to protect it. So he got a plant variety protection certificate from the USDA, which gave him exclusive rights to multiply the new creation he called the Enola bean. Then he went a step further, to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, to apply for a patent for his new invention. This would prevent others from developing any new beans based on the Enola. And, he thought, it would give hurting farmers in his Colorado valley a chance to grow beans that could fetch a better price. In 1999, the government awarded the patent to Proctor's company, based on the bean's color.

There was only one problem with Larry Proctor's version of history. Yellow beans found in Mexico have been dated back some 4,000 years to a time prior even to the Incas. And in the late 1970's, plant breeders in Mexico had taken some of the native yellow beans and bred them to produce a new variety - a variety that looks identical to Proctor's Enola.

In fact a Mexican entrepreneur living in the U.S. was importing yellow beans to sell to Mexican migrant workers and immigrants from Mexico who had grown up eating those beans. In 1998, she imported and sold 6 million pounds. In 1999, patent in hand, Larry Proctor shut down her business by demanding a royalty on the beans he had "invented".

As a footnote, The Center for International Tropical Agriculture, in Cali, Colombia, is challenging Proctor's patent. In its collection of over 260 types of yellow beans is one with an identical genetic footprint to the bean Proctor patented.

As a result of actions like those of Larry Proctor, public seed banks like CIAT are now demanding that researchers in the United States and elsewhere sign agreements not to use the seed for commercial purposes, lest this public knowledge get locked up by private interests.

You can see that the story of Larry Proctor's beans is an exact opposite to that of Marquis wheat. Proctor's patent, which is so broad that it encompasses all beans of almost any shade of yellow, was intended specifically to stop further research on yellow beans. He wanted to prevent others from developing any new beans based on the Enola. Where would wheat breeding have gone on the Canadian prairies if Charles Saunders had been able to patent Marquis wheat?

The patenting of plants, far from encouraging innovation, as is the purpose of patents, is now used to stifle innovation. It allows companies to tie up germplasm for their exclusive use. While plant breeders' rights do not now allow a breeder to restrict further work using his creation, patents do. We do not yet allow patenting of plants in Canada, but the pressure is on to do so. Farmers must let their voices be heard.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net