Wheat in Oklahoma.

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Crop breeders sprout plan to boost public sector research

Universities need to get better at sharing patented seeds and other products of publicly-funded agricultural science if the United States wants to keep producing bountiful harvests, argues a new report from a group of leading academic researchers.

The 50 researchers also call on the federal government to provide better funding for crop breeding efforts at public universities, and for universities to develop new ways of steering revenues from popular crop varieties back into research.

The recommendations come amidst growing concern about the future of public-sector plant breeding programs. Researchers at private agricultural firms tend to focus on creating better varieties of widely-grown, high-value crops, such as wheat and corn. But the task of improving lower-value but still important crops—such as oats, potatoes, or forages for livestock—has been largely left to scientists at public universities and laboratories run by federal and state agencies. Public breeding has been withering, however, as it has become increasingly dependent on less reliable, short-term funding sources that make it difficult to sustain a year-round breeding program. And it has been hampered by intellectual property practices that can make it difficult to share genetic material and other resources.

To identify solutions, researchers gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, last year for an Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding summit.

Plant genetic materials were once freely shared between institutions, the researchers note. But over the last few decades, university technology transfer offices have cracked down on how materials are exchanged and licensed—which has created confusion and slowed the creation of new varieties. 

To speed progress, the group calls for the adoption of a “professional standard”—similar to a code of ethics—that facilitates immediate, easy sharing of cultivars and other breeding material. The group also wants farmers to be allowed to save seed from cultivars developed by the public sector. (Private firms often forbid such seed saving.)

Many problems boil down to unrealistic expectations within university technology transfer offices about the potential commercial value of new varieties, says Pat Hayes, a barley breeder at Oregon State University in Corvallis. On rare occasions, new breeds do reap impressive financial returns. The Honeycrisp apple generated around $14 million for the University of Minnesota before its patent expired, and new strawberry varieties developed at the University of California (UC), Davis, have generated $37 million over the past 5 years.

But even though most varieties don’t generate that kind of income, public universities often opt for overly restrictive intellectual property agreements in a bid to protect potential earnings from their use. “When it comes to tech transfer, it’s often a one-size-fits-all model, dominated by patents,” says wheat breeder P. Stephen Baenziger of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. But there are other ways of protecting intellectual property that could ease sharing, he notes.

A conversation about better ways to distribute revenue generated by publicly-created crop varieties is also overdue, says Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and one of the summit’s organizers. For example, he notes that the University of Florida returns royalties just to the inventor’s program when the revenue stream is relatively small, but spreads the wealth across the institution’s broader crop breeding programs when revenues are bigger. As a result, the report notes, Florida boasts more crop varieties released—and more graduate students supported—than similarly situated institutions.

Developing creative funding strategies may also be key to recruiting the next generation of public-sector crop breeders, researchers say. “Most of current faculty are long of tooth and gray of muzzle,” says Hayes, and “strategies able to create attractive academic positions … are needed.”

The timing may be ripe. “Tech transfer offices have had several years to realize that not everything is going to be the next UC Davis strawberry,” says Margaret Smith, a field corn breeder at Cornell University. “A patent for a crop variety,” she says, “isn’t the same as one for an engineering widget.”