Seed World

Public Plant Breeders Seek Royalties While Keeping Cultivars in Public Domain

How can public plant breeding programs reap royalties and research investments while keeping their cultivars in the public domain? This was one of the challenges addressed at last year’s Intellectual Property Rights for Public Plant Breeding Summit. The proceedings were released today by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The 2016 summit included more than 50 professionals representing 36 institutions and 25 states. Participants agreed that our nation’s capacity for public cultivar development is on the decline and in need of serious attention. During the past 20 years, several reports have documented the decrease in public plant breeding programs, breeding positions, and government support.

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

Public breeding programs typically focus on crops with high social returns to investment but low private returns, such as small grains, perennials, cover and soil building crops, root and tuber crops, and tree crops. Public programs also support underserved markets and geographic locations that aren’t a high priority for private companies, and often times are invested in “long-arc” research, where the payoff may require years of work.

Inconsistent polices governing how germplasm is exchanged compound this trend. Too often these institutional policies, coupled by 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,” says 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 heard ideas from speakers for increasing investments in public programs and reducing restrictions on germplasm exchange. The resulting findings are published in the proceedings released today, which include papers by keynote speakers and recommendations for best practices and royalty sharing models that hold promise for bolstering public cultivar development.

For example, one of the keynote speakers, Barry Tillman of the University of Florida, described his university’s advanced model for developing and releasing public cultivars. Breeders there worked with the Office of Technology Licensing and the Florida Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., which oversee IPR policies and royalties, to develop a new system for cultivar release that now generates more revenue for both the breeding programs and the university than the previous model. In fact, the university has hired new breeders on account 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,” says 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 The 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,” says 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 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.
  • Increase Farm Bill support for cultivar development at public institutions, including 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 with a clear path forward.

“For many years now, we have heard how public plant breeding has been on the decline,” says 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 adds. “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 the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture (under award number 2017-67013-25922), and Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters initiative, with operational support provided by the National Association of Plant Breeders.