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Would a Schmeiser win hurt plant breeding?

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In the wake of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser, now being considered by the Supreme Court of Canada, fear has been expressed about the consequences a Schmeiser win might have for plant breeding in Canada.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association, for example, has said that weakening patent protections would discourage seed companies from investing in or serving Canadian customers. It has also urged the government to adopt even more stringent plant protections than currently exist.

The notion that tightening up rules around plant patents will cause research to wither and die needs some examining. It is based on two different but related ideas. The first is that companies would not spend research dollars in Canada because weakening patent laws would prevent them from getting sufficient returns for their work. Since the public plant breeding programs have been seriously under funded, the argument goes, they would not be able to take up the slack created by the decline in private research.

The second argument is that Plant Breeders Right's alone is not sufficient to protect plant varieties. Companies need the additional protection that patents afford.

According to the Canadian Seed Trade Association, public breeding has shrunk to an insignificant amount and private breeding must be encouraged if we are to remain competitive in crop production.

But is this actually so? The numbers do not bear it out, at least in some crops. In wheat, for example, a look at the list of recommended varieties for Saskatchewan shows that the vast majority of varieties of all types of wheat have come and are still coming from public breeding programs.

All varieties of durum listed in the guide come from public institutions, all hard white spring wheat varieties, all Extra Strong varieties, all winter wheats, all soft white spring wheats, six out of eight Prairie Spring varieties, and 19 of the 26 listed hard red spring wheat varieties. Of the seven red spring varieties that come from private breeding programs, only 3 were developed in Saskatchewan and none are grown on any significant acreage.

Nor is this situation limited to wheat. All but two of the oat varieties listed come from public institutions. So do all fall rye varieties, 17 out of 20 malt barley varieties, nine of ten feed barleys, 10 of 11 hulless barleys and all 7 of what the guide calls intensive management barleys.

Despite 10 years of Plant Breeders Rights protection, private plant breeders exhibit little interest in developing cereals for the Canadian prairies. Nor are farmers short of good varieties to choose from in these crops.

While it is true that public money for plant breeding, that is money directly from governments, has diminished greatly in recent years, much of the slack has been taken up by direct farmer contributions through check-offs. Royalties play a smaller role in funding public breeding, but they are still significant. What is noteworthy is that these royalties existed as part of the licensing system prior to the Plant Breeders Rights Act, under the Seeds Act. One plant breeder told me that, though the contribution from royalties is small, it is not tied to specific projects, and so can be used for upgrading equipment and similar, less sexy needs.

Pulse crops, particularly lentil, chickpea and dry bean varieties similarly show the impact of public breeding work. All lentils on the list, for example, come from public work. Most of the work in breeding pulse crops comes from the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan. It is funded by a check-off collected from farmers when they sell pulses. The Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, the organization that administers the check-off, does not allow its varieties to be protected by Plant Breeders Rights believing that farmers have already paid for the development of these crops and should not have to pay again.

The exception to all this is canola. Many of the new canola varieties come from private breeders. This explains the interest in patents exhibited by the Canadian Seed Trade Association. Its members are largely involved in canola work. Canola is cross-pollinated, rather than self-pollinated like most cereals. Thus varieties may not hold true to type for as long. As well, seed multiplication is much quicker, due to the small seed size and hence large number of seeds produced. In short, there is more money to be made in canola breeding.

What is apparent from all this is that the work of public plant breeding in Canada remains extremely important. This work has not been enhanced significantly by the existence of Plant Breeders Rights in that PBRs have not resulted in many new cereals, pulses, or other smaller volume crops, or in much new breeding in Canada. Multinational seed companies seem not much interested in crops that will not make them lots of money.

There is however, some private money in breeding cereals. Quaker Oats, for example, has funded oat development at the University of Saskatchewan for 30 years. Quaker Oats has no interest in PBRs or patents on these varieties. As an end user, it simply wants to make sure farmers have access to good oat varieties, so Quaker has a good product.

What Plant Breeders Rights legislation has done is given us a profusion of look-alike varieties. With a decline in independent testing of these varieties, farmers more and more have to choose based on advertising. Small wonder then that, as a plant breeder told me, the advertising budgets of the major seed companies far exceed their budgets for research and development. You have to wonder how that makes farmers better off.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax