Hardly a week has passed this summer without an announcement of another collaborative effort between the major players in plant breeding.
Monsanto’s collaboration with Dow AgroSciences to bring SmartStax, the agriculture industry’s first eight-gene stack, to the market is only the latest of a string of similar announcements in recent years.
Monsanto has also just announced a new agreement with Bayer CropScience to cross license their respective herbicide tolerance traits in canola on a non-exclusive basis for commercialization within their respective branded canola seed businesses. In a nutshell, it means farmers will be able to buy InVigor canola with Roundup Ready herbicide tolerance and Genuity canola with Liberty Link tolerance.
Two years ago, Monsanto and BASF entered into a research and development agreement that aims to pool their resources to develop high-yielding crops that are more tolerant to adverse weather conditions such as drought.
And in June, they announced this collaboration had hit pay dirt, the discovery of a naturally occurring gene that can help corn plants combat drought conditions and stabilize yields during periods of inadequate moisture.
Industry officials say the co-operation is partly due to the sheer cost of bringing new technology to the marketplace. If, for example, a germplasm company and a crop protection company are working towards the same goal – it makes sense for them to co-operate and perhaps get there sooner. Everyone benefits– including the farmer.
In the past, it’s been common to see private and public efforts combine through partnerships such as the one between Monsanto and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada nine years ago that resulted in Roundup Ready wheat.
More recently, Bayer CropScience announced in June it will work with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national research organization, which is one of the world’s leading institutions, to develop new wheat varieties. This agreement is aimed at improving the productivity and sustainability of cereal production through traits such as improved nitrogen efficiency, better drought tolerance and higher yields.
All the private-sector agreements raises the question of whether plant breeding is moving back to the days when virtually everything from germplasm to techniques was freely shared among researchers, which in those days were predominantly with government or not-for-profit organizations such as universities.
Although the recognition by governments of intellectual property rights through Plant Breeders Rights and patents has been seen as a major carrot attracting private-sector investment into research, the downside has been sometimes nasty legal battles as companies locked up germplasm, breeding techniques and biotechnology tools.
For a while it seemed as though if they couldn’t buy the other guy, they poured their energies into suing him.
Some critics even went so far as to suggest the dominance of private-sector plant breeders was slowing the pace of innovation because the players were too busy dicing up the existing technological pie to focus on making it a bigger whole.
Judging from the recent investments announced in canola research and development, and the advances made toward higher-yielding canola, it would be hard to argue that the crop’s commercial development has suffered under the care of private-sector plant breeders. Some farmers are now recording patches of 100-bushel canola on their yield monitors and the crop’s varietal base has expanded to include speciality oils with high-value uses.
The next question on farmers’ minds might be whether, after all the corporate consolidation that’s taken place over the past 15 years, whether all this sharing amongst the remaining companies is good for competition.
Garth Hodges, the global canola business manager for Bayer CropScience, along with other industry officials, is adamant the collaborations between companies to finance research and share traits doesn’t lessen competition. “There is a very unique difference in the sharing. We are not sharing our breeding material, we are not sharing the very foundation of our genetics and our germplasm,” he said. “What we are sharing is technologies and traits, because what we feel there is that if we have these technologies and traits we are able to bring bigger choices to the farmers.”
More choices, perhaps, but it’s worth remembering those choices are within a narrowing field of production systems. Market-share data indicates that two herbicide-tolerant systems now have more than 90 per cent of the market for canola seed in Canada, due to farmers’ purchasing decisions. Whether that’s enough choice for long-term stability in canola production remains to be seen. [email protected]