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Washington State wheat breeder won't sow Clearfield seed, Borlaug warns against privatization of public breeding

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(May 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- News of the demise of funding for a crop breeding program at Washington State University may have been greatly exaggerated, but it did shed light on what some regard as a looming threat to public agriculture research in Washington and other states.

The controversy began two months ago after a newspaper report that the state Wheat Commission might end its 8-year, $1.66 million support for the winter wheat development efforts of Stephen Jones, Ph.D.

The real news, says Jones, is whether he'll work with corporations, in this case BASF, to introduce herbicide-resistant wheat. The answer is simple: "No, I don't enter into contracts with for-profit corporations. The commission has a problem with my stand on trying to keep the public breeding programs public." Jones is unwilling to follow the path of counterparts at other public institutions. In the face of government cuts to funding for research, breeders and entire programs have contracted with agro-chemcial and biotechnology companies to develop new genetics that become patented intellectual property, fully in the private realm.


During a March meeting of the Wheat Commission, two of the five commissioners introduced -- and were the only ones to vote for -- a measure to eliminate funding for the winter wheat program. (One abstained, one voted "no" and the president didn't vote because there wasn't a tie.) The two members, also prominent seed dealers in the state, said the farmers in the districts they represent requested that Jones needed a strong message that he should breed BASF Corporation's Clearfield technology into winter wheat. Such a variety would be resistant to imazamox, an herbicide that BASF makes and markets as Beyond.

The fate of the WSU breeding program was to be decided at an April 3 meeting of industry leaders with Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics and director of the Agricultural Research Center at Washington State University, according to the March 21 Capital Press story, "Message sent to WSU wheat breeder; commission pulls funds."

That story was "overblown and premature," says Cavalieri, who oversees Jones's program. The April meeting with leadership of the Wheat Commission and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers did happen, he says. But that's nothing new. He meets with them every spring to discuss the Commission's preliminary funding decisions and concerns about projects. The only concern raised was communication between the breeders and the growers. Cavalieri wants his office to be the information conduit.

Jones's program didn't come up, says Cavalieri: "I can't imagine there not being money for the winter wheat breeding program."

Tom Mick, administrator of the Wheat Commission, says the situation [with the March meeting] was blown out of proportion: "We will fund a winter wheat program. What program, I can't tell you. I assume that Steve Jones will be involved in that program since he's the winter wheat breeder."

The Commission will consider next year's budget for research and all activities when it meets May 21 and 22 at its offices in downtown Spokane. The chairman will recommend a budget. After considering changes, the commissioners will vote on a final version.

The bulk of Wheat Commission revenue comes from an excise tax, or check-off, that growers pay when they sell their wheat. About $1.66 million of that has gone toward the winter wheat program since 1995. In 2002-2003, about $67,000 was budgeted for Jones's soft white winter wheat breeding program, $68,000 for his hard red and white breeding and $54,000 for pre-breeding and genetic mapping.

Some wheat growers question whether Jones has productively used the money, a charge he denies.

The Jones Record

Jones co-released Edwin and released Bruehl, two varieties in the club class of wheat. This year, Bruehl was the state's most widely-grown club wheat, a class sown on 231,000 out of 2.4 million acres. Club is a specialty wheat blended with common soft white winter wheat to produce a marketing class called western white wheat. Japan's millers and bakers favor it for use in sponge cakes and other pastries.

Besides the two club wheats, Jones recently developed a winter wheat, 7916, that resists a soil-borne disease causing the plants to fall over. Approved for release this spring, the wheat has excellent milling and baking qualities, and yields well, Jones says. In the fall, he also expects to pre-release a hard white and hard red winter wheat featuring good winter hardiness.

With money from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, one of the graduate students working in the program has been developing an organic winter wheat over the past three years. Jones anticipates its release in 5 to 6 years. The program also is developing perennial wheat to help reduce soil erosion.

That record, 3 varieties released and two more soon to come, compares well, he says, with a predecessor who released 11 varieties in 33 years.

Clearfield: New Tool or Crutch?

Dan McKay, owner of McKay Seed Company, is one of the commissioners who introduced the measure to withhold funding for the breeding program. He says growers in his district are "going broke" because goatgrass, cereal rye and other weeds are decreasing the value of their harvests. Resistance to Beyond would give them a new tool to make weed control easier. They could spray the herbicide without harming the wheat.

"If growers want a tool, it's obligatory for the breeders to do what growers want," McKay says.

Chris Herron, who grows wheat in Connell and leads the Research Committee of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, disagrees. He and his neighbors don't have excessively weedy fields, Herron says. Keeping out the unwanted plants requires careful management. This means harvesting in -- and saving seed from -- fields only where weeds aren't an issue, practicing proper crop rotation and planting only certified seed.

"All of a sudden a farmer wakes up one day and says, 'Holy Cow, I've got goatgrass on my whole farm. I need Steve Jones to breed me some [imazamox]-resistant wheat.' I don't think it's Steve Jones's responsibility to bail that farmer out of his poor management," Herron says.

Jones refuses to breed herbicide resistance in part because of target weeds themselves quickly developing resistance to the spray. That would require growers to use other herbicides, thus defeating the whole purpose of the technology. But then BASF or some other company would develop a new herbicide and, perhaps, contract with a public university to breed or genetically engineer a resistant variety.

According to the International Survey on Herbicide Weeds (http://www.weedscience.org/in.asp), 79 common weed species world wide have developed resistance to the Group B herbicides, of which imazamox is included.

The BASF plan for avoiding weed resistance to Clearfield wheat is part of the stewardship agreement farmers sign when they buy the seed.

Among other things, according to the company, farmers should use Beyond herbicide according to the label instructions, refrain from planting the wheat continuously in the same place, rotate crops, and use different herbicides. Most importantly, growers must NOT save the seed to plant the next year's crop. Doing so would infringe the patent and bring a fine of $100 per acre planted with saved seed.

Standing Firm to Protect Public Breeding

Perhaps more important than chemical-resistant weeds, Jones wants to avoid the privatization of public breeding. When a new, or "foundation," wheat variety is released, the university protects it with a certificate under the Plant Variety Protection Act. Seed growers buy the foundation seeds, reproduce them and then sell the resulting "certified" seed to farmers. Approximately 70 percent of the wheat acreage is planted with certified seed, according to the Washington State Crop Improvement Association.

In most cases, the seed dealers don't even pay a royalty to the university, holder of the variety protection certificate. Farmers are allowed to save successive generations of seed, which about 30 to 50 percent of state wheat growers do, and scientists can use it for research, Jones says.

This would change in the event of a foundation wheat featuring BASF's intellectual property. The seed would cost more per bag largely because of the patent protected herbicide-resistant genetics. Farmers would not be allowed to save the seed, and researchers wouldn't have access to it without restrictions. Seed dealers would increase their profits from selling farmers more expensive seed every year. BASF would make money from the patent royalty and the university might gain more in royalties with growers buying new certified seed annually.

Why are Colorado State, Oregon State, Washington State, and essentially all Land Grant universities entering into research contracts with BASF, Monsanto and other biotechnology and seed companies? First, less money is coming from the federal and state governments. Second, individual researchers receive personal royalties checks for anything that they commercialize.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service report, "Public Sector Plant Breeding in a Privatizing World": "Intellectual property protection, globalization, and pressure on public budgets in many industrialized countries have shifted the balance of plant breeding activity from the public to the private sector...In the United States, public sector plant breeding research expenditures for field crops appear to have started to decline in real terms from the mid-1990s." (http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib772).

The state of Washington leads the country in cutting funds for higher education research, including agriculture, says Tom Mick, of the largely farmer-funded Wheat Commission. His organization has taken up the slack. Thirty years ago, it spent about $60,000 a year to fund research at the university. More recently, the figure is $900,000 or more annually.

"We can't continue to do that," Mick says. "It's strapping us."

At WSU, Ralph Cavalieri has had to cut the budget for the agricultural research by $2.2 million in the last two years. About 84 positions have been eliminated since 1993. This includes the extension agents who traditionally advised farmers. Instead, they are turning to seed and chemical dealers -- in business to sell product -- for advice.

Why not just urge state legislators to appropriate more money for agriculture research?

Breeding takes a long-term commitment, Cavalieri says. Developing new wheat lines can take 10 to 15 years. The university is now releasing cherry trees after 25 years in development. Combining such time horizons with the fact that the bulk of voters live on the Interstate 5 urban-suburban corridor, far from the source of their food, won't bring much political support, he says.

Norman Borlaug, the agronomist credited with launching the Green Revolution that increased grain yields in the last century, bemoans what he regards as the longtime privatization of public breeding. Corporations holding overly broad utility patents make it difficult for public universities to compete, Borlaug says. That, along with the continued loss of state and federal money, could further increase the number of private research contracts. He's concerned that Land Grant schools will lose public funding to such a degree that they'll fall back on private contracts.

"Who'll train the scientists for the next generation?" he says. The corporations won't because that doesn't necessarily lead directly to profit.

Doug Lammer, a post-doctoral researcher in the WSU winter wheat program, uses X's and Y's to explain his view that widespread cooperation of public institutions with for-profit corporations spells the end of public breeding.

The university introduces a foundation X wheat variety with good agronomic and milling characteristics. Meanwhile, it contracts with a biotechnology company to either breed or genetically engineer herbicide resistance into X to produce a Y variety. The company will then get a utility patent, which theoretically applies only to a particular gene(s), but practically and legally covers the whole seed and, indeed, the entire plant.

Initially, farmers buy X and like it. But as they're on increasingly thin margins and looking to sow larger acreage to achieve economies of scale, they'll eagerly accept the herbicide-resistant Y when it enters the marketplace. In the short term, it makes weed control easier. In many cases, the technology will free up enough time that the farmers can get another job to make up for the lower prices they've been receiving for wheat and other commodity crops.

"With the success of line Y, the temptation for breeders will be to use the patent protected line as a parent in the on-going breeding program," Lammer says. "As the patented trait is perpetuated in subsequent generations, it would be difficult to see any difference between the work of university breeders as public servants, and the work one would expect from breeders directly employed by Monsanto or BASF."

Although proponents of Clearfield wheat understand and share these concerns, they're ready to gamble on the technology.

"There is an argument," says Brad Isaak, president of the Grant County Wheat Growers Association. "BASF says you have to use all that seed and can't plant it back. We farmers don't like that, but it's a shot that we want to take. Steve Jones is the one who doesn't want to take the risk. I think the majority of growers statewide support immi-resistant [Clearfield] wheat."

He bases that in part on a meeting of the Grant and Douglas county Wheat Growers associations, which together have a membership of about 300 farmers, to discuss the uses of their check-off money. The 20 members who attended the meeting agreed, Isaak says, that "somehow, we have to get his (Jones's) attention. And after so long, the only way to do that is through money."

Jim Moore disagrees. He thinks a minority of the growers represented by McKay and Tompkins, the two seed dealers on the state Wheat Commission, are pushing for the funding cut. "If the constituent is a good customer, then where's the conflict of interest," Moore says. "Which hat do you wear in votes on the commission? The interest of industry or your own?

"At the next meeting [May 21-22], we'll see whether the silent majority stays silent or whether they'll show up and get vocal. I think they will."

Jones can be certain he'll get no pressure from his boss. Says Ralph Cavalieri: Clearfield wheat "is not an issue. Steve will not get pressure from us to change his stance. One of the fundamental principles of a university is academic freedom."

Editor's note: The state of public plant breeding and how to improve it will be one of the topics of discussion September 6-8, 2003 in Washington, D.C. at the "Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture."