Saskatchewan, Canada, March 1, 2004: 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 not 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
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.