4-Patents: "Plant-variety protection was the death knell for publicbreeding programmes"
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TITLE: Crop improvement: A dying breed
SOURCE: Nature 421: 568-570, doi:10.1038/421568a, by Jonathan Knight
sent by checkbiotech/Syngenta
DATE: Feb 6, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
"Changes in the intellectual-property environment have also taken their
toll. From the late 1960s onwards, developed nations introduced a
legal framework of plant breeders' rights, giving new varieties and
cultivars patent-like protection. The goal was to stimulate innovation
in corporate labs, but the reforms also meant that public-sector
breeders were no longer free to tinker with plants grown from
commercial seed. "Plant-variety protection was the death knell for
public breeding programmes," says Michael Gale, head of comparative
genetics at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Britain's leading public
plant-science research institute."
Crop improvement: A dying breed
Public-sector research into classical crop breeding is withering,
supplanted by 'sexier' high-tech methods. But without breeders'
expertise, molecular-genetic approaches might never bear fruit. Jonathan
Normally, at this time of year, agricultural scientists from around the
world would be converging on the headquarters of the International Maize
and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, in Texcoco, near Mexico
City. They would then travel together to a desert field station near
Ciudad Obregón in northwestern Mexico to study the current crop of
experimental wheat cultivars, planted at the beginning of winter.
But not this year. For the first time in half a century, the research
centre that helped to sow the seeds of the 'green revolution' of the
1960s and '70s has been forced to skip a cycle of wheat breeding trials,
because of a lack of money. More than half of CIMMYT's fields in Obregón
lie fallow, and the trainee plant breeders are staying at home.
CIMMYT is not alone. All over the world, conventional plant breeding has
fallen on hard times, and is seen as the unfashionable older cousin of
genetic engineering. "Plant breeding is getting dumped along the wayside
for not being sexy enough," claims Greg Traxler, an agricultural
economist at Auburn University in Alabama. Government funding of plant-
breeding research has all but dried up in the United States and Europe,
and the World Bank and donor nations have recently slashed their support
for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR), the international research consortium of which CIMMYT is a part.
Meanwhile, a steady push by companies to claim exclusive commercial
rights to new plant varieties has progressively tied the hands of
publicly funded efforts at crop improvement. If this trend isn't halted,
some experts claim, tomorrow's supercrops may end up like many of today's
medicines: priced out of the reach of much of the developing world's
growing population. "We are headed down the same path that public-sector
vaccine and drug research went down a couple of decades ago," says Gary
Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation in
Classical breeders improve crops simply by crossing plants with desired
traits, and selecting the best offspring over multiple generations.
Sometimes they use chemical mutagens to disrupt crop genomes, in the hope
that some of the resulting mutants will have useful new traits. Crosses
may be as simple as letting two plants grow together, or they may require
pollination by hand. And for crops such as wheat, one parent must first
be emasculated to prevent self-pollination. In some ways, breeding is
like accelerated, targeted evolution, and as long as test crops and seed
banks are maintained, the possibilities can never be fully exhausted.
These methods, applied intensively at CIMMYT and the International Rice
Research Institute (IRRI) near Manila in the Philippines, provided the
impetus for the green revolution. Breeders produced dwarf varieties of
wheat, maize and rice that were less likely to fall over in wind and
rain, and which could carry larger seeds. Thanks to these varieties,
farmers could use more fertilizer without risking losing their crops, and
grain harvests in some areas have doubled or even trebled over the past
Central to CIMMYT's success in wheat was the practice of 'shuttle
breeding', in which two seasons of plant selection could be completed in
one year. Grain would be rushed from the fields in Ciudad Obregón after
the harvest in April for summer planting in Toluca, near Mexico City.
This year's cancellation of the Obregón end of the shuttle was part of a
10% reduction in CIMMYT's programmes in the face of budget cuts, says the
centre's director general, Masa Iwanaga. This was a result of the
reduction in support for the CGIAR, which supports CIMMYT, IRRI and 14
other agricultural research centres around the world.
Whereas the CGIAR's funding crisis has come to a head in the past couple
of years, exacerbated by the global economic downturn, the world's
academic plant-breeding labs have suffered steady attrition over a far
longer period. Molecular genetics and transgenic technologies hold great
promise for crop improvement, and have consumed a growing portion of the
limited funding pie. University administrators have reinforced this
trend, tending to replace retiring plant breeders with molecular
geneticists who are more likely to produce high-profile journal articles.
Changes in the intellectual-property environment have also taken their
toll. From the late 1960s onwards, developed nations introduced a legal
framework of plant breeders' rights, giving new varieties and cultivars
patent-like protection. The goal was to stimulate innovation in corporate
labs, but the reforms also meant that public-sector breeders were no
longer free to tinker with plants grown from commercial seed. "Plant-
variety protection was the death knell for public breeding programmes,"
says Michael Gale, head of comparative genetics at the John Innes Centre
in Norwich, Britain's leading public plant-science research institute.
Root of the problem
The figures reinforce Gale's view: until the 1960s, breeding for crop
improvement was largely a public endeavour, but a survey of US plant
scientists in the mid-1990s found more than twice as many breeders in the
commercial sector than at universities and government agencies combined.
And although breeders' skills are still alive in the private sector, they
are now working to subtly different ends. For seed companies and
agribiotech firms, the top priority has been developing crops that can
maximize profits from the intensive agricultural practices that are
widely used in the developed world. Sadly, there is less money to be made
in seeding a second green revolution for the world's poor.
In recent years, of course, the big news in the commercial and public
sectors has been transgenic technology, rather than conventional
breeding. Genetically modified (GM) crops that are resistant to the
effects of broad-spectrum herbicides or that carry genes for insecticidal
toxins have been widely planted across North America -- but simultaneously
shunned by European consumers, who are deeply suspicious of the
technology. The welter of media coverage has obscured recent achievements
in classical breeding, and although breeders generally view transgenics
as a valuable tool, they stress that conventional breeding is far from
In fact, for many GM crops, there is a comparable conventionally bred
variety. The seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred, based in Des Moines, Iowa, for
instance, produces a conventional, herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, or
canola, that has similar advantages for weed control as its GM
counterparts. And whereas the GM 'golden rice', engineered to contain a
gene that boosts the production of vitamin A by people who eat its grain,
has attracted much publicity, conventional breeding is also being
deployed to improve the nutritional value of this staple crop. IRRI has
produced a cultivar of rice called IR68144 that bears grain rich in iron,
and so could be used to combat anaemia. Even for crops such as the
banana, which is unable to reproduce sexually without specialist human
intervention, conventional breeding may still have a role to play (see
"Bananas in the fertility clinic").
What's more, the GM crops developed so far generally involve only the
addition of a single gene. Looking to the future, it's unclear whether
complex traits, which are thought to involve multiple genes, will be
amenable to manipulation through genetic engineering. "In the long term,
you need heat tolerance, salt tolerance, greater yield and so on," says
Paul Gepts, a crop geneticist at the University of California, Davis.
"Some say you can do it with genetic engineering, but we just don't know
how those systems work and how those genes interact." By contrast,
practical experience has shown that conventional breeding can be used to
improve a suite of subtle traits simultaneously.
All of this makes Donald Duvick, who was head of research at Pioneer Hi-
Bred until his retirement in 1990, concerned about the future of crop
improvement should the agribiotech giants lose their enthusiasm for
transgenics. "I worry that the results will be so far in the future that
industry will say 'we can't wait that long'," he says. If so, the
depleted public-sector effort in plant breeding may be ill-equipped to
take up the slack.
There are already hints that some companies are pulling back from long-
term investments in high-tech crop improvement. Only last month, the
Swiss-based multinational Syngenta closed its Torrey Mesa Research
Institute near San Diego, which was a major force in crop genomics. And
both Syngenta and its US rival DuPont, which owns Pioneer Hi-Bred, have
recently withdrawn funding from the John Innes Centre. "The industry is
in turmoil," says Gale.
Against this sombre background, can anything be done to safeguard future
progress in crop improvement by reviving the science of plant breeding in
the public sector? There is no easy answer, but some experts suggest that
the future lies in boosting the power of conventional breeding by
marrying it to genomic and other molecular-genetic techniques, while
making a concerted effort to break with the proprietary approach to
intellectual property that is currently blighting the field.
One beacon of hope comes from a consortium of researchers at 12
institutions headed by Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat molecular geneticist at
the University of California, Davis. Its primary tool is 'marker assisted
selection' (MAS). This technique, enthusiasts claim, could offer to plant
breeding what the jet engine has brought to air travel. Traditionally,
breeders have relied on visible traits to select improved varieties. For
pest resistance, for example, that means examining mature plants in the
field over successive generations to see which survive best in the face
of attack by pests, before carrying out new crosses. MAS, however, relies
on identifying marker DNA sequences that are inherited alongside a
desired trait during the first few generations. Thereafter, plants that
carry the trait can be picked out quickly by looking for the marker
sequences, allowing multiple rounds of breeding to be run in quick succession.
MASwheat, as the consortium is known, aims to select for 23 separate
traits in wheat, conferring resistance to fungi, viruses and insect
pests. Its members also hope to breed the grain to produce bread and
pasta of superior quality. Notably, the consortium is making all of its
marker sequences and research protocols freely available. "If you go to
our website, you have all the tools to do this anywhere in the world,"
For wheat, this admirably open approach was relatively easy to adopt,
because it is one of the few crops to remain largely in public hands.
Because wheat is self-pollinating, many farmers simply plant a portion of
their harvest each year, safe in the knowledge that it will retain its
desirable characteristics. Not surprisingly, this has restricted the
interest of commercial seed producers, who don't see a robust market for
Elsewhere, however, intellectual property is creating a heavy burden,
with universities and other institutions facing barriers to the free
exchange of seed, and restricted access to cutting-edge molecular
technologies. "I wish it would all go away," says Kent McKenzie, director
of the California Rice Experiment Station, which develops new varieties
of the crop in its test fields at Biggs, north of Sacramento.
Extending the MASwheat consortium's approach to other crops may require
public institutions to band together to end the practice of granting
exclusive licences to individual companies each time they develop a
powerful technology for crop improvement. To this end, Toenniessen has
been meeting with representatives of ten 'land grant' universities --
which form the backbone of agricultural research in the United States --
to hammer out a plan. "If those in the public sector worked collectively,
they could solve their problems," says Toenniessen. He hopes to pioneer
the approach in speciality crops such as peanuts, broccoli, lettuce and
tomatoes, in which the seed and agribiotech industry does not have strong
Richard Jefferson would go further. His Center for the Application of
Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA) in Canberra,
Australia, is trying to put cutting-edge technology for crop improvement
directly in the hands of developing-world scientists and farmers, rather
than leaving them to depend on the continued health of labs in rich
countries. "The money is drying up and that is not going to change," he
says. "We need to rethink the way crop improvement is done."
In part, Jefferson says, this will involve the transfer of transgenic
technologies. But extending access to molecular-genetic enhancements to
conventional breeding methods will also be crucial. Researchers at
CAMBIA, for instance, have developed a DNA microarray that will boost
MAS. In many crops, it is difficult to search for specific genetic
markers, because very little of their DNA has actually been sequenced.
But by immobilizing fragments of DNA from a variety of cultivars on a
microarray and then seeing which of them bind to DNA sampled from
individual plants, it is possible to look for the presence of genetic
markers in these plants in the absence of any sequence information.
This technology has already been adopted by the International Center for
Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, for cassava improvement. "It is
extremely useful," says Joe Tohme, the centre's director of
biotechnology. By making such techniques freely available, and allowing
scientists anywhere in the world to tinker with and improve them at will,
Jefferson hopes to speed progress. Essentially, he wants to create a
crop-improvement counterpart to the 'open-source' software movement that
has managed to flourish alongside the proprietary approach of giants such
as Microsoft, which keep their programs' codes under wraps.
'Open-source molecular agronomy' is certainly a sexier label than
conventional plant breeding. But will it have sufficient cachet to
reverse the current decline in public-sector crop improvement? The food
supply for future generations in the developing world could hinge on the
Jonathan Knight writes for Nature from San Francisco.