Monsanto’s Canadian patent on its current generation of Roundup Ready soybeans expires soon, but whether farmers get their hands on any so they can save their own seed, is an open question.
Monsanto Canada spokeswoman Trish Jordan says Monsanto’s seed company DeKalb is switching to the new, patented Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, which farmers will not be allowed to save for seed. However, other soybean seed companies are free to continue selling the so-called “Roundup Ready 1” soybeans, even if they are also selling the new Roundup Ready 2s.
“We aren’t putting any mechanisms in place that would prevent that,” she said in an interview last week. “In fact, we think that’s a decision that individual seed companies have to make.”
The 18-year-old patent on Roundup Ready soybeans expires in August. Farmers won’t be allowed to save seed from this year’s soybean harvest. However, if they can buy Roundup Ready 1 soybean seed in 2012 they will be free to save seed from that crop and plant it in 2013 and beyond, Jordan said.
Despite Monsanto’s assurances some farmers are skeptical.
“I think the distributors of these varieties going forward are being strongly encouraged to adopt the new technology, which makes (marketing) sense,” said Craig Riddell, a Warren-area farmer and president of the Manitoba Seed Growers’ Association (MSGA). “To bring new technology along the marketing plan is to not offer Roundup Ready 1 to promote the uptake of the new strain.”
One soybean seed seller said his company doesn’t expect to sell Roundup Ready 1 seed after this year.
“We want to stay in business,” he said. “If we keep selling 1s we’re not going to be in business.
“I’m not aware of any seed company building its future by continuing to sell 1s.”
The MSGA supports the use of patents to reward crop innovations, Riddell said “but we do feel… once the patent is up the technology is fair game and it should be allowed to continue its use.”
INCENTIVES TO SWITCH?
Riddell said he suspects seed companies that continue to sell Roundup Ready 1 soybeans beyond this year will be penalized. Another industry observer said he’d heard rumours Monsanto is providing incentives to seed companies to switch.
Jordan said such suspicions are groundless.
“We will support seed companies in the production and sale of Roundup Ready (1) soybeans after 2011,” she said. “It’s their (seed company) choice but they’re not required to destroy or return any seed to Monsanto. They can choose to work with the next-generation technology but at the same time it’s not going to preclude them from selling varieties with Roundup Ready 1 technology if that’s something they decide to do.”
Monsanto will assist seed companies with some of the extra costs of switching to Roundup Ready 2, but the same approach is taken every time it introduces new technology, she said.
Seed companies gain by selling patented seeds because it forces farmers to buy new seed. But Jordan noted companies selling off-patent seed save by not having to pay Monsanto a royalty.
One seed industry participant said it’s possible a seed company might continue selling Roundup Ready 1 at such a low price farmers would buy new seed anyway. The company might also bundle the sale of that seed with other seed sales.
Soybeans, with a reputation for surviving wet conditions better than most crops, have expanded rapidly in Manitoba. Plantings jumped 22 per cent to 516,218 acres in 2010. Their relatively low cost of production, due in part to reduced nitrogen needs, plus strong prices could see soybean seeding jump to 700,000 acres this spring.
Farmers like the convenience, effectiveness and relatively low cost of the Roundup system for controlling weeds. Getting all that and not having to buy new seed every year is appealing. But Jordan said Monsanto’s new Roundup Ready 2, which yields seven to 11 per cent more than the Roundup Ready 1 varieties, will compete.
“We’re pretty confident both seed companies and farmers will want it,” she said.
“Canadian farmers are going to do the math on our products and see what kind of numbers they put up and we will continue to compete for their business, there’s no doubt about that.”
This spring DeKalb will have some Roundup Ready 2 varieties for sale, along with some Roundup Ready 1 varieties, Jordan said. The first Roundup Ready 2 varieties are later maturing but earlier ones will be available next year.
That’s critical, Riddel said. “We’re hoping the move to the
new technology doesn’t mean having to resort to varieties that aren’t suited to our heat zone,” he said. “That’s a big concern.”
This is the first time such a widely grown crop trait is going off patent. Monsanto will be watching closely as it prepares for the same transition in the United States starting in 2014, Jordan said. [email protected]
– CRAIG RIDDELL