UPOV 91 may encourage exchange of plant material, say breeders

Germplasm ownership key part of legislation

Most wheat varieties in western Canadian farmers’ fields can be traced back to laboratories at federal institutions and universities. 


That’s about to change with the introduction of new plant breeders’ rights legislation expected later this summer, although how and to what degree remains unclear. 


“There’s a number of companies that are expressing interest getting into wheat in Canada, but of course there is this whole question about how will they capture a return on their investment,” said Ron DePauw, senior principal wheat breeder with Agriculture Canada. 


Canada has seen several new investments in wheat breeding initiatives in recent years from major multinational companies, including Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroScience.


At the same time, Agriculture Canada has shut down its Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg. 


“Any new investments (in wheat research) are likely going to have to come from the private sector. What will it take for them to invest? If the public sector is there and is a major competitor, they’re probably not going to invest,” George Clayton, an adviser with Agriculture Canada, told the Canadian Wheat Symposium in Saskatoon last week. 


“If rules do not allow for a return on investment, they’re probably not going to invest.”


Updated plant breeders’ rights legislation, currently weaving its way through the House of Commons, seeks to stimulate interest from the private sector by increasing protection for intellectual property and generating revenue for breeders with the adoption of UPOV 91 standards. 


Many breeders and companies have applauded the updates to plant breeders’ rights, although some farm groups have criticized the proposed legislation. 


An important consideration is the control of germplasm as the material required to improve breeding programs is exchanged between different organizations, both public and private.


Numerous officials at last week’s conference from both the public and private sectors expressed frustrations with exchanging germplasm. Supporters of PBR legislation say the move will help facilitate partnerships and trade.


“Breeders and wheat research groups need to treat exchanging germplasm like readers treat books,” said Rollin Sears, a breeder with Syngenta.


“We do not try to protect the words in the book. We let authors rewrite the stories and create new stories from those words. We need to do the same thing in wheat breeding. We need to allow breeders to exchange and recombine these genes to make new wheat varieties. 


“UPOV 91 as a form of intellectual property, compared to say utility patents, I think, is a much superior way of protecting germplasm and I think an important one for us in terms of our global aspirations to increase yield.” 


SeCan’s Jim Downey said UPOV 91 will have little impact on most farmers. The legislation will “tighten up and increase certified seed sales,” he added.