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Best Practices for Sustaining Public Plant Breeding

July 25, 2017

Adrienne Shelton (graduate of UW-Madison and presenter at the summit) and Montana farmer Doug Baty discussing a publicly developed sweet corn variety called ‘Who Gets Kissed?’. Photo credit: Organic Seed Alliance.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Kristina Hubbard, Director of Advocacy and Communications with NSAC member group, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA). OSA attended the Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding Summit last year, and works independently as well as with NSAC on public plant breeding policy.

Public plant breeding programs, as their name implies, are meant to develop plant and seed types that are kept in the public domain and available for all interested farmers and researchers. However, years of declining federal investment in public cultivar research and development have nearly brought the industry to a standstill, and researchers today must have financial sustainability in the forefront of their minds. How can these two equal needs – to collect royalties and research investments while simultaneously keeping cultivars in the public domain – be balanced? This was one of the key issues addressed at the Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding Summit, the proceedings of which were released yesterday by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The two-day event, which was held last year in conjunction with the National Association of Plant Breeders’ annual meeting, provided participants with an opportunity to identify best practices and effective models for intellectual property rights (IPR) used by plant breeders in the public sector. The 2016 summit included more than 50 professionals representing 36 institutions and 25 states. Participants gathered at the summit based on the mutual agreement that our nation’s capacity for public cultivar development is on the decline and in need of serious attention. Over the past twenty years, several reports have documented the decrease in public plant breeding programs, as well as the potential impact on our nation’s agricultural and food systems based on such a decline.

Margaret Smith of Cornell University, who participated in the summit as a keynote speaker, noted that ensuring sustained funding for public plant breeding programs in the U.S. is an ongoing challenge. “Public sector breeding is supported by a combination of funds that have increasingly become more variable, less reliable, and shorter term,” Smith explained.

Public breeding programs typically focus on crops with high social returns on investment (i.e., production of forage and other minor crops, protection of natural resources, reduction in on-farm inputs) but low private returns (i.e., financial returns for the researchers). These crops include, but are not limited to: small grains, perennials, cover and soil building crops, root and tuber crops, and tree crops. Public programs also support underserved markets, producers, and geographic locations that aren’t a high priority for private companies, and often times are invested in “long-arc” research, in which the payoff may require years of work.

Integrated Property Rights and the Role of Federal Policy

In addition to lacking much-needed investments from the federal government, the public plant breeding sector has also suffered from inconsistent polices governing how germplasm is exchanged – breeding improved plant/crop varieties relies on access to suitable parental germplasm. Too often these institutional policies, coupled with overly restrictive IPR and licensing agreements, constrain plant breeders’ freedom to operate, and create confusion and inefficiencies for public and private sector partners. These inconsistencies ultimately slow progress and output in public cultivar development.

“IPR can play an important role in protecting the integrity of varieties and generating revenue to support ongoing breeding work,” said Jane Dever of Texas A&M, who participated as a keynote speaker and also served on the summit planning committee. “But summit participants agreed that IPR should be approached differently in the public sector than it is in the private sector.”

Given these realities, and the important service public breeders provide, summit participants solicited ideas from speakers for increasing investments in public programs and reducing restrictions on germplasm exchange. The resulting findings are published in the proceedings released yesterday, which include papers by keynote speakers and recommendations for best practices and royalty sharing models that hold promise for bolstering public cultivar development.

One of the keynote speakers, Barry Tillman of the University of Florida, described his university’s advanced model for developing and releasing public cultivars for summit participants. Breeders at the University of Florida worked with the Office of Technology Licensing and the Florida Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., which oversees IPR policies and royalties, to develop a new system for cultivar release that generates more revenue for both the breeding programs and the university than the previous model. In fact, the university has been able to hire new breeders thanks to the implementation of this model.

“The success of our model is largely due to improved polices that were established in 1995 to create synergies among faculty and administrators,” said Barry Tillman. “The result has been a steadily growing cadre of faculty members engaged in cultivar development, an increase in the number of cultivars released, an increase in royalty returns, and an increase in the number of graduate students enrolled in plant breeding programs.”

Another keynote speaker, David Francis of Ohio State University, emphasized that a key component of the University of Florida model is one that his own university shares: returning an adequate amount of royalties back to plant breeding programs.

“Returning royalties to research programs is an important step toward nurturing innovation within public research in general and plant breeding specifically,” said Francis. “Public institutions involved in cultivar development should commit to returning some of the royalties generated by plant breeders directly to their programs. This should be a general best practice.”

In addition to showcasing working models and recommended best practices, participants also developed specific recommendations for addressing germplasm exchange and funding constraints in public sector breeding programs. These recommendations include the need to:

  • Develop a professional standard similar to the wheat workers code of ethics for exchanging and releasing germplasm from public sector breeding programs;
  • Develop best practices for dispersing royalty revenue to plant breeding programs and for joint releases of cultivars from collaborative plant breeding projects; and
  • Increase Farm Bill support for cultivar development at public institutions, including increasing base funding for programs and the availability of competitive grants.

Conference organizer Bill Tracy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw the outcomes of the conference as positive and felt they provided a clear path forward.

“For many years now, we have heard how public plant breeding has been on the decline,” said Tracy. “What was exciting about this meeting is that we heard real world solutions implemented by colleges and technology transfer agencies that not only support current cultivar development but have increased the number of plant breeders, crop varieties released, and royalties generated.”

“These are solutions that can be implemented anywhere and we are planning on working with plant breeding colleagues, research administrators, and technology transfer professionals to reinvigorate public cultivar development,” Tracy added. “We now know there is a way to do it – we just need the will.”

The Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding Summit was supported by an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well by the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters initiative.

Resources and More Background

Find the full proceedings at this link: https://agronomy.wisc.edu/ipr-summit/

The Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding Summit was identified as a priority coming out of another event focused on public plant breeding: The 2014 Seeds & Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture Summit. For more background on this event and to read the proceedings, click here.

Categories: Research, Education & Extension

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