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Specialized seed sales a legal maze for K-State

(Monday, Aug. 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor, The Wichita Eagle, 08/15/03: MANHATTAN - K-State is ready to release three or four new varieties of soybean seed that have been developed especially for this climate and also contain the Roundup Ready gene.

But the release isn't as easy as it used to be in the days when universities simply released a public variety that commercial seed companies could sell and farmers could save seed to replant.

"With the arrival of gene cloning, plant patenting and private ownership of specific traits, the world changed," said David Mengel, a plant breeder at K-State.

The Roundup Ready trait, for example, is the patented product of Monsanto, an international biotechnology company. K-State signed a research agreement with Monsanto six years ago that enabled the university to incorporate that trait in its research but that placed restrictions on how the new varieties could be marketed.

Monsanto requires that farmers plant certified Roundup Ready seed and not save back harvested seed to replant the next year.

And Monsanto wants to make sure any company selling the new K-State varieties also protects Monsanto's patent on Roundup Ready.

"Essentially, we need to market the seed through a separate entity," Mengel said.

K-State initially thought of launching a nonprofit corporation for that and even came up with a name: Wildcat Genetics.

Then researchers learned that the Kansas State University Research Foundation is an existing organization whose mission is to market university technology.

Mengel said the name Wildcat Genetics still has a lot of appeal, however, perhaps as a brand name for K-State seed produced through shared technology.

"We'd like to find a way to let the public know that this is a product of university research," he said. "I even envisioned this little sticker on every bag of seed that said 'powered by Wildcat Genetics.' I'm not ready to give up the name."

The parent seed will be sold to retailers that also hold licenses to sell Monsanto products, Mengel said. The goal is to have foundation seed available to seed companies in 2004 and the new varieties available to growers by 2005.

Mengel said the university will continue research on other patented-trait plants through research agreements.

He foresees the issue becoming more complicated.

"There are a lot of desirable traits that farmers would like to see bundled," he said. "Farmers would like a Roundup Ready soybean that is also cyst-nematode-resistant," he said. "When you get into multiple traits that have multiple owners, everybody has to be happy with the licensing agreement."

He said he sees a lot of promise for K-State research because the Kansas climatological zone is not a big soybean producer, and the major private companies are not doing a lot of research on varieties suitable to this zone.

"There is the potential for our stuff to be handled so it is available across that zone all across the country," Mengel said. "It stretches all the way across Kansas, southern Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois and Indiana, West Virginia and Virginia. Only 11 percent of all available varieties are adapted for use in this area."

Any revenues derived from the seed sales program would come back to K-State to support the breeding program, Mengel said.