Improved crop varieties have vastly changed U.S. agriculture across the board, but it hasn’t come without a price. It can take as much as a decade or more and an investment of millions of dollars to take a variety from discovery, through development and ultimately to commercialization and availability.
A lot has been said and written in recent months about the value of new plant varieties, especially as it pertains to peanuts. As has been reported here, improved varieties – along with the expertise of the finest growers – has transformed the U.S. peanut industry into the world’s low-cost producer in an amazingly short amount of time.
And it isn't just peanuts.
As if to make this point clear, a federal judge recently ruled that a major agricultural manufacturer my recover $360,000 from a Southeastern grower who planted seeds derived from the company’s genetically modified cotton without authorization.
The cotton seed is sold under limited-use license agreements, which require buyers to use the seeds for planting a commercial crop in a single season. Farmers are prohibited from saving harvested seeds to plant a subsequent crop and from selling or transferring saved seeds to third parties for planting.
The judge ruled that the grower in question intentionally infringed on the company’s patents by planting the seeds without authorization, by trying to conceal the unauthorized planting, and by selling the seeds to other growers for planting. The other farmers have agreed to resolve their alleged infringement of patent rights.
As Terry Hollifield, executive director of the Georgia Crop Improvement Association has said on more than one occasion, this is serious business.
New crop varieties with improved pest resistance generally are recognized as the most significant contributor to higher yields over the past 30 years, making seed more valuable than ever before. It’s vitally important that growers understand the laws that apply to saving seed at the farm level.
“Private corporations and public institutions should be paid for their efforts in developing new crop varieties,” says Hollifield. “Everyone in the seed industry shares in the responsibility to ensure that all parties are fairly compensated for new crop varieties.”
The “pirating” of seed by farmers, seed conditioners and others is not only illegal but also reduces the funding available for research, he says.
Most newer crop varieties, according to crop improvement association, are protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act (PPVA) and/or a utility patent.
Under the 1994 PVPA, a farmer may save enough seed of a protected variety to plant on his own farm holdings but may not sell seed without permission of the variety’s owner. It is an infringement to condition, bag or store farmer-saved seed if the quantity exceeds what the farmer can legally save for planting purposes.
Don't risk the farm
Under U.S. Patent Law, a farmer MAY NOT condition, treat, bag or store any seed of a utility patent-protected variety or a variety containing a utility-patented gene.
U.S. courts, says Hollifield, have continued to enforce these laws and the protection they provide to plant breeders and seed companies. Fines and penalties have been handed down to growers and seed handlers who attempt to save seed for re-sale without the permission of the owner of the variety, and this enforcement will continue.
Hollifield stresses that growers should not risk the future of their farm or business by purchasing seed or selling seed of a protected variety.
So if you’re insure at all about the status of the variety you’re planting this spring, take a few minutes to contact the owner of the variety or your state crop improvement association for clarification. It might be the best call you ever made, both for yourself and for the future of your farming operation.