For me, June’s highlights were two plant breeding events that I had the chance to attend, where I met members of the UK’s crop breeding community and learned more about this multimillion-pound industry.
The first of these was Cereals 2012 in Lincolnshire, Europe’s biggest event for the arable industry, which this year hosted over 470 exhibitors and 25,000 visitors. One of the greatest attractions here for farmers and growers was the display of around 90 demonstration crops grown in small plots, allowing potential buyers to inspect and compare the different varieties for the right combination of desirable traits.
I met up with Penny Maplestone from the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), who took me on a whirlwind tour of the 64 hectare site and filled me in on the work of the BSPB. One of BSPB’s main responsibilities is to ensure the collection and distribution of royalties from UK seed sales. Plant breeders are awarded a form of intellectual property on new seed varieties that they produce, called “Plant Breeders’ Rights”, which entitles them to royalty payments on the seeds that they sell. Since the Government stopped funding crop breeding programmes in the 1980s (and the resulting privatisation of many top breeding institutes) plant breeders have relied heavily on this income as their main source of funding for breeding programmes.
A typical wheat breeding programme takes around six to twelve years to complete and, with research and development costs at around £1.5million per year, this doesn’t come cheap. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that any new variety will ever reach the market since legislation dictates that rigorous field trials must be passed before it can be placed on a National List of varieties approved for marketing.
To top things off, the average market lifetime of a cereal variety is only about five years, since fierce competition means that newer, better varieties constantly enter the market and supersede the older ones. Therefore breeders are under extreme pressure to bring out new varieties in order to stay in business.
So how has the movement of breeding programmes from the public sector into the private sector affected the UK seed industry, and has privatisation been a good or bad thing? This was one of the questions addressed at the second event that I attended last month. PBI-100 was a one day conference held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich to celebrate what would have been the centenary of the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge. For the most of last century, PBI was one of the world’s leading centres for crop innovation but like many of the UK’s other public breeding institutes, it was sold to industry in the late ‘80s.
During the meeting, Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, noted that since the remodelling of breeding funding in the UK, scientific progress here has continued to excel – competition within the private sector has provided a driving force for innovation leading to major advances in crop development. However, huge financial outlays and high risks associated with commercial breeding, along with a dependence on income from royalties, means that it is virtually impossible for new breeding companies to set up in the UK.
And while agriculture and crop improvement are higher on the political agenda than ever before, the separation of fundamental research carried out within academia from the applied research done by commercial breeding companies has created a translation gap referred to as the “valley of death”.
Incentives for partnership between academia and industry can bridge this gap, but much work is still needed to allow the translation of basic scientific knowledge into tools for plant breeders to use in a commercial context.