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Week 3 (Unit 5)

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Genetic Resources and Biodiversity

Germplasm, gene pools
Genetic resources and conservation
Intellectual property - plant variety protection, patenting
Ethical Issues Related to Germplasm Ownership and Use

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Biodiversity refers to all of the genes, species and ecosystems in a region or in the world. Agrobiodiversity pertains to the diversity found in agricultural systems. It encompasses many types of biological resources related to agriculture including:

  • edible plants and crops, including traditional varieties, cultivars, hybrids, and other genetic material developed by breeders
  • livestock and freshwater fish
  • soil organisms vital to soil fertility, structure, and quality
  • naturally occurring insects, bacteria, and fungi that control insect pests and diseases of domesticated plants and animals
  • agroecosystem components and types (polycultural/monocultural, small/large scale, rainfed/irrigated, etc.)
  • genetic resources of domesticated plants and animals
  • and "wild" resources (species and elements) of natural habitats and landscapes that can provide services (for example, pest control and ecosystem stability) to agriculture.

It is generally recognized that agrobiodiversity is essential for sustainable agricultural production and food security, as well as environmental conservation. According to the World Resources Institute, experience and research have shown that agrobiodiversity can:

  • Increase productivity, food security, and economic returns
  • Reduce the pressure of agriculture on fragile areas, forests, and endangered species
  • Make farming systems more stable, robust, and sustainable
  • Contribute to sound insect pest and disease management
  • Conserve soil and increase natural soil fertility and health
  • Contribute to sustainable intensification
  • Diversify products and income opportunities
  • Reduce or spread risks to individuals and nations
  • Help maximize effective use of resources and the environment
  • Reduce dependency on external inputs
  • Improve human nutrition and provide sources of medicines and vitamins
  • Conserve ecosystem structure and stability of species diversity.

Nonetheless, the predominant patterns of agricultural growth have tended to erode biodiversity. In this module we examine this apparent conflict and look for practical means for enhancing biodiversity in agricultural systems.

In 2001 the UN launched a comprehensive scientific study, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, to review the consequences of current changes to ecosystems and to evaluate scenarios for the future. The first report was released on March 30, 2005. You are encouraged to review the synthesis report (219 pages) or the summary power point presentations that describe the major findings of the study. A popular account of the main findings of the project can be found at http://www.greenfacts.org/ecosystems/. Additional reports on major themes of the project have also been released, including one that specifically addresses the issue of Biodiversity.

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Erosion of Diversity in Cropping Systems

Source: Thrupp, 1997. http://pubs.wri.org/pubs_description.cfm?PubID=2633

Genetic erosion is the irreversible loss in genetic diversity, usually of crop plants or domestic animals. Lack of diversity leads to genetic vulnerability, which is the potential for rapid, large-scale disease or insect epidemics. Reduction in diversity often increases vulnerability to climatic stresses as well.

Causes of genetic erosion:

  • Release of high-yielding modern cultivars
  • Use of a few cultivars that are highly related (narrow genetic base)
  • Increased reliance on monocropping (monoculture) - growing a single crop species in a field
  • Loss of land races and local varieties
  • Increased dependence on high levels of inputs such as irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides
  • Loss of natural vegetation
  • Overgrazing
  • Urbanization
  • Overpopulation

Increased mechanization of agriculture has promoted the use of monocropping. Machinery has become more specialized to perform single tasks, often for a single crop. Modern cultivars are often bred to perform best at high plant densities with high levels of fertilizer, which also favors highly mechanized production of single crops.

Although humans consume over 7,000 plant species, only 150 species are commercially important, and about 103 species account for 90 percent of the world's food crops. Wheat, rice, and maize together account for about 60 percent of the calories and 56 percent of the protein that people obtain from plants.

Extent of Genetic Uniformity in Selected Crops

Crop Country Number of Varieties
Rice Sri Lanka From 2,000 varieties in 1959 to less than 100 today.
75% descend from a common stock.
Rice Bangladesh 62% of varieties descend from a common stock.
Rice Indonesia 74% of varieties descend from a common stock.
Wheat USA 50% of crop in 9 varieties.
Potato USA 75% of crops in 4 varieties.
Soybeans USA 50% of crops in 6 varieties.
Source: World Conservation Monitoring Centre. 1992. Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources (Brian Groombridge, ed.). London: Chapman & Hall.

Examples of Crop Failures due to Genetic Uniformity

Irish Potato Famine
Potatoes infected with late blight are purplish and shrunken on the outside, corky and rotted inside.  Photo by Scott Bauer, ARS USDA photo gallery Late Blight of potatoes caused by Phytophthora infestans was introduced into Europe in 1845 from the Americas. It spread rapidly throughout the British islands and caused complete failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1845-1846. Because potatoes were the major staple food crop, one million people died during the epidemic due to starvation and disease. During the years that followed, millions of people emigrated from Ireland to the northeastern US and other destinations.
Photo by Scott Bauer
ARS USDA Image Gallery
Potatoes infected with late blight are purplish and shrunken on the outside, corky and rotted inside.
Coffee Rust Epidemic

In 1868, Ceylon was the leading producer of Coffea arabica in the world and a major exporter. By 1885, no coffee could be exported due to a leaf disease caused by a fungus, Hemileia vastatrix. Many factors contributed to the epidemic, but one of the most important was the destruction of native jungles in Ceylon and the establishment of an agricultural monoculture of coffee.The coffee rust epidemic reached Java by 1876, East Africa by 1894, and Brazil by 1970. The pathogen is highly variable and can be controlled by fungicides, but this is not economical unless the climate is ideal. Genetic resistance is available in Coffea canephora (Robusta), but Robusta coffee is of lower quality. Tea became more popular as the result of this epidemic.

Southern Corn Leaf Blight Epidemic
Corn Leaf Blight, ARS USDA image bank

To produce hybrids, female inbred lines must not be permitted to produce pollen. In the early years of the hybrid corn industry in the USA, this was achieved by manually removing their tassels. A novel approach was found that involved the use of a cytoplasmic male sterility system. Genes in the mitochondria caused male sterility. Male fertility restorer genes from the male inbred parent restored fertility in the F1 hybrid. Before long, much of the US hybrid corn industry relied on the Texas male-sterile (Tms) cytoplasm that was the source of the male sterility system. Because the cytoplasm is inherited from the maternal parent, all of the F1 hybrids generated with this system had the same cytoplasm.

In 1970, a country-wide epidemic of Southern Corn Leaf Blight caused by a new strain of a fungus Bipolaris maydis (formerly known as Helminthosporium maydis) led to an estimated $1 billion losses in corn production. The epidemic started in Florida and moved northwards. The new strain, known as Race T, was more virulent on maize with Tms cytoplasm. An estimated 80-85% of the dent corn grown in 1970 had Tms cytoplasm. The hybrid industry quickly reverted back to the use of normal cytoplasm and detasseling.

Photo by Keith Weller
ARS USDA Image Gallery
The greener leaf of the tropical corn line, left, shows that it is more resistant to corn leaf blight than the severely damaged domestic leaf on the right.
Current concerns and examples:
  • Narrow genetic base of modern US soybean varieties - 60% of the US soybean crop has the Roundup-Ready trait.
  • More than 70% of the US cotton crop has the Bt trait for insect resistance.
  • About 30% of the US corn crop has the Bt trait for insect resistance.
  • Current genetic vulnerability in wheat:
    • 70% of world wheat varieties carry Rht1 or Rht2 semidwarf genes
    • >60% of CIMMYT-derived wheat varieties carry 1B/1R; most through ‘Veery’ genetic background
    • PNW wheat varieties
      • Common bunt resistance traces to CI178383
      • Strawbreaker footrot resistance entirely from VPM
    • Plains wheat varieties
      • Sr6, Sr17, Sr24 form backbone of resistance to stem rust
      • Luckily, stem rust races are unchanged since the epidemics of the 1960’s due to barberry eradication efforts (now under criticism)
      • Leaf rust races change every 4-5 years in response to deployment of new resistance genes

Enhancing Biodiversity

Key Principles and Practices to Use and Enhance Agrobiodiversity: http://pubs.wri.org/pubs_description.cfm?PubID=2633 (Adapted from UNDP, 1995; Altieri, 1991)

I. Management of Diverse Productive Resources

  1. Diversification and Diversity Enhancement
    • temporal (crop rotation, sequences)
    • spatial (polycultures, agroforestry, crop/livestock systems, intercropping)
    • genetic (multiple species/varieties, multilines, interspecies)
    • regional (i.e., variation in watersheds, zones)
  2. Recycling and Conservation of Soil Nutrients and Organic Matter
    • plant biomass (green manures, crop residues, mulch, for diverse soil nutrients)
    • animal biomass (manure/dung, urine, etc.)
    • reuse of nutrients and resources internal and external to the farm (e.g., tree litter)
    • integrate diverse plants or organisms (vermiculture, cover crops, mainly legumes)
  3. Integrated Pest Management, stressing agroecological approaches
    • natural biological control (enhancing natural control agents)
    • imported biological control methods (e.g., add natural enemies, botanical products)
    • diverse cropping/soil management methods to enhance natural fauna
    • enhancing use of habitats and species in habitats

II. Conservation and Regeneration of Resources (stressing Diversity Aspects)

  1. Germplasm Conservation (plant & animal species, landraces, adapted germplasm)
  2. Beneficial Fauna and Flora (multiple use vegetation, pollinators, natural enemies)
  3. Soil Health (erosion control, fertility enhancement, see recycling above)
  4. Water (harvesting, conservation, management, irrigation)

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Germplasm, Gene Pools

What is germplasm?

Plant germplasm refers to the 'genetic base' of a particular crop, including individuals, populations, or relatives that may contribute genetically to breeding and crop improvement. Germplasm may include:

  1. Currently utilized or formerly used "elite" germplasm--the product of modern plant improvement.
  2. Landraces, or traditional varieties--the product of selection by traditional cultures.
  3. The term 'landrace', is widely applied to local, often genetically highly variable, crop variants cultivated as part of traditional agriculture. Frequently, a landrace includes a broad mixture of genotypes.

  4. Wild or weedy plants with the potential of providing useful genes for plant improvement and natural products useful to humans. These plants may be candidates for domestication.
  5. Specialized genetic stocks for research.

Germplasm is the genetic base for recombination and selection in breeding programs needed to improve crops.

Diversity is needed to:

  • sustain genetic improvement for polygenic traits, such as yield
  • respond to changing pathogen pressures, such as new races, or introduction of new pathogens
  • provide ‘genetic buffering’, both within and among cultivars, that can reduce losses to unusual environmental fluctuations or race-specific disease organisms.
Examples of germplasm value and use:

The Russian Wheat Aphid (RWA) was introduced into the Great Plains in the 1980’s. No varieties or local germplasm had resistance or tolerance to the aphid. Genetic resistance was identified through systematic screening of USDA wheat germplasm collections. Genes have been deployed in new varieties for W. Kansas and Colorado production areas, resulting in reduced pesticide applications and reduced losses from the RWA.

Leaf rust races change periodically in the Plains wheat producing area. Average lifespan of a wheat variety is 4-6 years due to changes in virulence and evolution of the rust disease organism. Leaf rust genes now number Lr1 through Lr45, with most recent genes being derived from weedy species (T. tauschii) that were accessions from germplasm collections.

Gene Pools

Harlan and de Wet proposed three informal categories of gene pools, based on the ease with which particular germplasm could be crossed.

Chromosome pairing at Metaphase I of meiosis is also used to indicate the degree of chromosomal homology between two germplasm groups. The system is an informal, utilitarian scheme designed to organize the various types of germplasm from the perspective of plant breeders.

  1. primary gene pool - germplasm that can be crossed easily to the crop or species of interest, producing a highly fertile hybrid and, consequently, highly efficient gene transfer. The boundaries of a primary gene pool are similar to those of a "biological species”.
  2. secondary gene pool - crossing and gene transfer are more difficult, and require more elaborate techniques. Hybrids between individuals in the secondary gene pool and the crop species of interest are often somewhat sterile and/or weak.
  3. tertiary gene pool - although crosses can be made with great effort between individuals in this gene pool and the crop species of interest, the F1 plants are generally inviable or sterile.

A modified version of the ‘Gene Pool’ concept is needed to take into account new gene transfer techniques (genetic engineering). Boundaries between species and gene pools are increasingly less clear due to modern genetic, cytogenetic and biotech tools.

Modern plant breeding requires a large amount of diverse genetic variation, a large gene pool to fulfill constant and changing needs. Large repositories of this genetically diverse germplasm are being created and maintained by subsistance farmers around the world and in large international centers dedicated to this purpose. Useful genetic variability also lingers in many wild populations around the globe.

Genetic Resources and Conservation


A genebank (seed bank) is a facility established for the ex situ conservation of seeds, tissues, or reproductive cells of plants or animals. With intensification of agriculture and increasing urbanization, gene banks are increasingly important as means to preserve genetic diversity for future use.

Seed viability can be extended for several years by maintaining seeds in cold storage at low relative humidity. Many of the larger genebanks use additional techniques for prolonging seed storage life, such as dehydrating the seeds, seeling them in airtight containers, and storing them at freezing temperatures. Cryogenic preservation methods have also been developed using liquid nitrogen. These techniques may permit seeds to be stored for decades, but at some point all accessions must be taken from storage and grown out to regenerate the seed supply. This is a time consuming and expensive task that requires careful record keeping and quality control. Vegetatively propagated crops have additional requirements for storage.

The number of genebanks has grown rapidly since the early 1970s, when there were fewer than ten, holding perhaps no more than a half million accessions. A total of more than 1,400 collections are now recorded in FAO's World Information database. Many breeding programs, seed companies, nurseries, and public display gardens perform some of the functions of germplasm management and hold valuable collections.

Approximately 6.1 million accessions are stored worldwide in ex situ germplasm collections, including approximately 527,000 accessions stored in field genebanks.

One of the largest groups of collections is that maintained by the International Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). There are now over 600,000 accessions of major food and forage crops in these collections, which have been designated as part of the International Network of Base Collections under the auspices of FAO.

Examples of ex situ collections of crop-specific plant germplasm at selected CGIAR centres (source: SGRP data)
CGIAR Center Crop Number of Accessions
CIAT, Colombia
Beans (Phaseolus)
Cassava (Manihot)
Tropical forages
CIMMYT, Mexico Wheat (including Triticum, Aegilops)
Maize (including Teosinte, Tripsacum)
CIP, Peru Potato
Sweet potato
Andean roots and tubers
ICARDA, Syria Barley (including wild Hordeum)
Wheat (including Triticum, Aegilops)
Chickpea (including wild Cicer)
Faba bean
Lentil (including wild Lens)
ICRISAT, India Sorghum
Pearl millet
Minor millets
IRRI, Philippines Rice (Oryza) 80,646

Ex situ conservation in some of the largest national base collections (FAO, 1996)
Country and Institute Accessions Facilities
China: Institute of Crop Germplasm 300,000 Long-term storage, space available
USA: National Seed Storage Laboratory 268,000 Long-term storage, capacity of 1,000,000 accessions
Russia: VIR 177,680 No long-term facilities
Japan: NIAR 146,091 Long-term facilities
India: NBPGR 144,109 New genebank built for 600,000 accessions
Korea, Republic of: RDA 115,639 Long-term facilities, total capacity 200,000 accessions
Canada: PGRC 100,000 Long-term facilities
Germany: IPK (Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research), Gatersleben 103,000 Long-term facilities
Brazil: CENARGEN 60,000 Long-term facilities, capacity for 100,000 accessions
Germany: FAO, Braunschweig 57,000 Long-term facilities
Italy: Bari 55,806 Long-term facilities
Ethiopia: Biodiversity Institute
54,000 Long-term facilities
Hungary: Institute for Agrobotany
45,833 Long-term facilities
Poland: Plant Breeding & Acclimatization Institute 44,883 Long-term facilities
Philippines: NPGRL 32,446 Long-term facilities

Although over 6 million accessions are currently in storage world-wide, this represents only a fraction of the natural genetic diversity in crop plants and related species in the wild. Only a very small sample of advanced germplasm from world breeding and plant improvement efforts is maintained. Furthermore, minor crops are poorly represented. Over 40% of all accessions in genebanks are cereals. Food legumes are the next largest category constituting about 15% of global collections stored ex situ. Vegetables, roots and tubers, fruits, and forages, each account for less than 10% of global collections. Medicinal, spice, aromatic, and ornamental species are rarely found in long-term public collections.

Leading Institutions and Organizations involved in Germplasm Conservation

Convention on Biological Diversity
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders agreed on a comprehensive strategy for "sustainable development". One of the key agreements adopted at Rio under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme was the Convention on Biological Diversity. This pact among the vast majority of the world's governments sets out commitments for maintaining the world's ecological underpinnings as we go about the business of economic development. The Convention establishes three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.

The National Plant Germplasm System of the United States
The National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) of the United States evolved from the USDA plant introduction program, which was established in 1898 to introduce new plant species, crops, and genotypes to American agriculture.

Four Regional Plant Introduction Stations (at Ames, IA; Geneva, NY; Griffin, GA; and Pullman, WA) were first established in the late 1940s, to increase, maintain, characterize and distribute germplasm. These stations specialize in curating active collections of seed-propagated crop species and their wild relatives.

The Plant Introduction network has evolved into a national, coordinated germplasm system. Components of the system include:

  • The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) was established in 1958. Now located at Ft. Collins, CO, the NCGRP serves as long-term storage and back-up site for other collections. (See also National Seed Storage Laboratory, NSSL)
  • A network of clonal repositories and crop-specific germplasm collections - clonal repositories emphasize species of fruits, nuts, ornamentals and industrial crops that are usually vegetatively propagated.
  • Crop-specific collections that specialize in a single crop or group of related species.
  • The Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), which began operations in 1984. GRIN is the master database for all sites in the NPGS. It sets standards for documentation and holds passport, inventory, characterization and evaluation data for NPGS collections.
  • The Plant Germplasm Operations Committee which convenes all NPGS curators to discuss system-wide concerns, to develop management guidelines, and to advise USDA-ARS National Program Staff on technical and policy matters related to germplasm management.

At present, the NPGS holds about 438,000 accessions: 197,000 at Plant Introduction Stations, 32,000 at Clonal Repositories, and the remainder at crop-specific collections and the NSSL.

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
There are 16 International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) in the CGIAR system, and most of them are located in developing countries. The IARCs and their partners conduct research on most of the principal food crops consumed in developing countries, focusing on variety improvement, cropping systems research, plant protection, control of animal diseases, post-harvest systems, and various aspects of food policy. The centers are also involved with training, information dissemination and genetic resources conservation.

Most IARCs with commodity mandates are actively involved in germplasm conservation, evaluation, and distribution. Centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, IITA, CIAT, ICRISAT, and ICARDA maintain large gene banks and provide this germplasm on request to both developed and developing countries.

The System-wide Information Network for Genetic Resources (SINGER) is the genetic resources information exchange network of the International Agricultural Research Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It provides access to information on the collections of genetic resources held by the CGIAR Centres. Together, these collections comprise over half a million samples of crop, forage and tree germplasm of major importance for food and agriculture.

International Board of Plant Genetic Resources (IPGRI, IBPGR)
In 1974, the CGIAR created the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) now called Biodiversity International, giving it a mandate to promote an international network of genetic resource centers for the collection, conservation, documentation, evaluation, and use of plant germplasm.

In the early 1990s, the IBPGR was transformed into the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). The Institute was designed to assume the scientific and technical duties performed by the IPBGR. IPGRI was founded on a new set of guiding principles that recognizes changing international roles brought about by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Today, from its base in Rome (alongside FAO) and through regional offices, the IPGRI coordinates a network of international centers, supports plant exploration and key regional projects, provides technical advice and training programs on germplasm increase, preservation (both in situ and ex situ), characterization and evaluation, and publishes recommended procedures, descriptor lists and the FAO/IPGRI Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
FAO plays a key role in formation of policy regarding plant genetic resources. They convened the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany, in 1996. The conference, which involved 150 countries, approved the first Global Action Plan for the conservation and better use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The Conference also adopted the "Leipzig Declaration", which stressed that the primary objective must be to enhance world food security through conserving and sustainably using plant genetic resources.

After seven years of negotiations, the FAO Conference (through Resolution 3/2001) adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, in November 2001. This legally-binding Treaty covers all plant genetic resources relevant for food and agriculture. It is in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

World Network of Germplasm Conservation
A broad network of institutions and organizations has evolved, sharing the goal of preserving biodiversity. This network includes international agricultural centers, national genetic resource programs, botanical gardens, and non-governmental organizations. It is supported by the IPGRI, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, World Wildlife Fund, International Association of Botanic Gardens (see also the Botanical Gardens Conservation International), national governments, and many other organizations.

This network is formalized only in parts, but is generally based on the principles of open exchange of germplasm and its documentation to support scientific research, the overall preservation of biodiversity, and the central theme of research-based methods to preserve genetic diversity in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

National Programs
Many nations support some level of ex situ germplasm conservation as part of their ministries or departments of agriculture and/or forestry. Some developed countries, especially in Europe, do not support national programs, but instead rely on neighboring countries and regional programs, such as the Nordic Gene Bank. Other developed nations, such as Australia, have extensive national programs and collections.

Many national programs face problems, including inadequate long-term financial support, unreliable storage facilities, and the lack of a large, well-organized community of users. These problems are especially acute in developing countries and those of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of India
The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) was founded in 1976 by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The NBPGR coordinates all activities related to germplasm collection, introduction, exchange, quarantine, evaluation, documentation, and conservation through its national office in New Delhi and ten regional centers. There are many national and international programs cooperate with and receive advice from the NBPGR.

The NBPGR holds about 160,000 accessions in long-term storage and is expanding its collections both through outside introduction and from numerous domestic explorations, emphasizing species with centers of diversity or origin in the Indian subcontinent.

Botanical Gardens and Arboreta
Botanical gardens vary widely in their goals and in the nature of their commitments to conservation. Some gardens emphasize aesthetic displays or utilitarian evaluation. Others have much expertise with in situ conservation through management of natural lands or cooperative projects.

Non-governmental Organizations
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), other than gardens, have been increasingly important participants in germplasm conservation. NGOs that are primarily composed of gardeners and traditional farmers often have access to varieties overlooked by, or even unavailable to, national or international governmental programs. Such "grass-roots" organizations can be effective educators, explaining the importance of germplasm and of conserving genetic resources to a gardening audience and to the general public.

In situ methods of conservation that maintain domesticated crops and their wild and weedy relatives in their natural ecosystems have received increased emphasis in recent years (see Biodiversity International at: http://www.bioversityinternational.org/Themes/Conservation_and_Use/index.asp#In_situ_conservation for further information.)

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Intellectual Property - Plant Variety Protection, Patenting

Who owns the worlds' crop plants??

Goal of establishing intellectual property rights (IPR):

  1. Create incentives and stimulate new technological advances by providing means and mechanisms to capture financial returns on investments.
  2. Reward inventors with exclusive rights for some period of time.
  3. Create an avenue for public disclosure of technology, which provides stimulus for further advances.

In the USA, intellectual property protection for plants is provided through plant patents, plant variety protection and utility patents. Plant patents provide protection for asexually reproduced (by vegetation) varieties excluding tubers. Plant variety protection (PVP) provides protection for sexually (by seed) reproduced varieties including tubers, F1 hybrids, and essentially derived varieties. Utility patents currently offer protection for any plant type or plant parts. A plant variety can also receive double protection under a utility patent and plant variety protection.

Current principles and issues at stake in agriculture:

  • Ownership of ‘living organisms’, genes - what is the resulting impact on international food security?
  • There is a need for private companies to recoup R&D investments, but application of IPR laws is leading to increased corporate control over world food production.
  • What is the impact on economic and social development of developing countries? There is concern about access to agricultural technologies by subsistence farmers and developing countries.
  • What is the potential for impact on biological diversity, genetic base of major crops, and long-term improvement efforts? How will this affect the future of public research through USDA and Land-grant Institutions?

History of intellectual property rights for plants and agriculture in the USA

Prior to 1930 - Farmers' rights

  • Farmers had direct access to seed and germplasm
  • Crops were ‘true breeding’ and seed was easily saved
  • Most reeding was publicly financed
  • Land-grant institutions established in 1860’s

Discouraged private investments in plant breeding because it was difficult to maintain control over sales and markets and recoup investments.

1930’s - Trade secrecy

  • With introduction of hybrid corn, saved seed was no longer an option
  • Hybrid varieties could be protected through trade secrecy
  • Proprietary corn hybrids were initially based on public inbreds
  • Pressures to develop and support commercial plant breeding increased
  • All released varieties and hybrids could be used as breeding materials

Trade secrets and contracts are often used as low-cost alternative to more formal means of protection. Breeders often will sequester segments of their program. Use and access to breeding germplasm may be limited or restricted, even during cooperative testing.

1930 - Plant Patent Act

  • First US legislation to protect plants
  • Protection for horticultural crops and nursery stocks
  • Asexually propagated plants only (plants reproduced through buds or grafting)
  • Potato excluded
  • Variety must be ‘distinct’ and ‘new’
  • Administered through US Patent Office.

1970 - Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA)

  • Goal was to promote commercial investments in plant breeding
  • Provides ‘Patent-like’ protection for plants reproduced by seed
  • Limited exclusive rights to owners
  • Protection limited to entire plant and harvested material
  • Duration 20 years; cost ~$3,500
  • Issued by USDA
  • Seed sales only through ‘authorized dealers’
  • ‘Research exemption’ for use in breeding
  • Allows seed to be saved for use on farm, or for ‘limited sale’
  • Similar to 1961 European (UPOV) ‘Plant breeders rights’ law
  • Breeders have right to exploit products of their profession
  • ‘Authorization’ required for plant production, sale and marketing
  • Variety must be ‘distinct, uniform, and stable’; novel in at least one trait
  • Widespread ‘brown-bagging’ (illegal sales and use)
  • Erratic and inadequate enforcement
  • Enforcement responsibility of PVP holder
  • ‘Minor’ penalties for violation or infringement
  • Concern over impact on germplasm exchange and crop diversity

This law led to an increase in private breeding, but only for a few crops. Market size and profit margins were primary determinants of commercial success. Crops such as wheat and barley, which are self-pollinated, faced with low profit margins for seed and extensive pirating, received only limited private investments.

1980 - Utility Patent of ‘living organisms’

Diamond vs Charkrabarty Supreme Court decision – 1980

  • Established ‘anything under the sun made by man’ is patentable
  • Broadens patent law to encompass living organisms

Establishes ownership of plant varieties, traits, parts, and processes.

Claims can be broad based, including entire species. Examples: plant parts, seeds, cell cultures, plant tissues, transformed cells, expressed proteins, threshold traits, and genes themselves.

Standards for issuance of Utility Patent:
  • Must be novel in relation to ‘prior art’
  • Must be useful
  • Must be non-obvious to one of ‘ordinary skill in the art’ (innovative step)
  • Provides more IPR protection than PVP, but at a higher cost, standard for issuance
  • Allows prohibition of farm-saved seed
  • Allows prohibition of use in breeding
  • Research exemption, but not for any ‘commercial use’
  • Technology license required to access, or save, seed
  • Granted for 20 years; application within 1 yr of ‘disclosure’

The first Utility Patent for genetically engineered maize was granted in 1985. The chief interest in Utility Patents came from inventors of biotechnology products and processes. However, seed companies have looked toward Utility Patents for additional protection beyond that afforded by PVP.

Concerns about plant patents:
  • Restrictions placed on patented varieties for subsequent use in breeding
  • Potential negative impact on crop diversity
  • increased domination of breeding by larger companies.

1980 - Bayh-Dole Act
1986 - Tech Transfer Act

Impact on public plant breeding and research:
  • Established that Universities have the right to obtain patents and commercialize inventions created under government grants.
  • Licenses and royalties sought by Universities as means to generate revenue as government support declines.
  • As an inventor, a University employee has the right to receive a portion of the royalties on the invention (as an incentive to file a patent).
    • Oregon: share determined by state law, through Board of Education
  • CRADA: a mechanism developed to assign rights from joint work to a private company, while government retains non-exclusive license.

1994 - Amendment of PVPA

  • Eliminates ‘saved-seed’ provision of PVPA
  • Farmer can save only for own on-farm replantings
  • Reaffirmed in Asgrow vs Winterboer, 1995 Court case
  • Brings PVPA into accordance with UPOV

2001 - Plant Patenting reaffirmed

Supreme Court decision of December, 2001: JEM Agricultural Supply vs Pioneer Hybrid

Utility Patents, Plant Patents, and PVP are different, but ‘complementary’.

2004 - Canadian Supreme Court: Schmeiser vs Monsanto

A Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser was charged with patent infringement for growing Roundup Ready canola on his farm. Mr. Schmeiser claimed that the patented genes had entered his field through wind-blown pollen contamination and mechanical mixtures from passing trucks. As a farmer who breeds his own crops and saves his seed, he objected to Monsanto's claim that they owned any plants on his farm that contained the patented genes. The debate received worldwide attention, and was ultimately decided by the Canadian Supreme Court. To hear the farmer's perspectives on the 2004 ruling, visit http://www.percyschmeiser.com/ . To read Monsanto's interpretation of the case, see http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/layout/media/04/05-21-04.asp

International Agreements impacting Plant Biodiversity and use of Germplasm

1989 - FAO - International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources

Non-binding international agreement.

Purpose: To ensure that genetic resources will be explored, preserved, evaluated and made available for breeding and science.

Underlying Principles:
  • Genetic resources are a heritage of humanity; should be available without restriction
  • Establishes ‘Farmers’ Rights: farmers should be compensated for development and conservation of genetic resources
  • Sovereign rights of nations to preserve, protect and be compensated for innovations utilizing their native genetic resources

The challenge is to define rewards for access and utilization of germplasm: who, how, how much??

1991 - Revision of UPOV convention

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV)

  • Limits farmer’s exemption to ‘saved seed’ (sales prohibited)
  • Essentially derived’ concept established
  • Expanded breeders' protection
  • Violation loosely defined as ‘intent’ to recapture genotype with ‘minor modification’. Such as: mutants, somaclonal variants, backcrossing, genetic engineering
  • Definition to be decided ‘in court’

An essentially derived variety is distinct and predominantly derived from a protected initial variety, while retaining the essential characteristics of that initial variety. Essentially derived varieties may be obtained by the selection of a natural or induced mutant, or of a somaclonal variant, the selection of a variant individual from plants of the initial variety, back-crossing, or transformation by genetic engineering. The commercialization of an essentially derived variety needs the authorization of the owner of the rights vested in the initial variety.

1992 - International Convention on Biodiversity, Rio de Janeiro

  • Conservation of biological diversity established as an international priority
  • Promote fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources
  • Maintain appropriate access and transfer of relevant technology among countries
  • Reaffirms sovereign rights of states over natural resources, including genetic resources
  • Promote international agreements, efforts in technology transfer, licensing, protection, sharing of R&D, cooperative training

Many issues regarding the implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) remain unresolved. This is particularly true for the United States, because the Senate has been reluctant to ratify the Convention. The seventh meeting of the CBD was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February, 2004 (see http://www.biodiv.org/meetings/cop-07/press/ for press releases).

1994 - TRIPS Agreement, Marrakech, Morocco

WTO members are obligated to provide/support patents for both products and process inventions in all fields of technology.

Agree to protect crops by adopting ‘as low a standard of protection’ as possible – typically ‘Plant Breeders Rights’.

Collaboration in use of Genetic Resources

Historically, there has been excellent collaboration between the U.S. Land-Grant Institutions and publicly supported International Research Centers in plant improvement efforts. A Hallmark of the collaboration has been the free exchange of plant germplasm and information. Now there are increasing restrictions for use and exchange of germplasm. It is often necessary to obtain access to genes through Material Transfer Agreements (MTA’s). Licenses and royalties are sought by some Universities as means to generate revenue as government support declines. Application of Patents and Plant Variety Protection to plants has become an internal policy decision - there is no consensus among institutions.


  • Restricted access and use of germplasm
  • Legal costs and enforcement
  • Restrictions on progeny, publications
  • Joint ownership of progenies, discoveries
  • Complicated by biotech patents on single genes, processes
  • Public programs increasingly unable to access and use technology
  • Companies increasingly restrictive and demanding.

Example: CIMMYT Material Transfer Agreement (MTA)

  • Germplasm freely available for research and breeding
  • Recipient agrees not to seek IPR protection


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Ethical Issues Related to Germplasm Ownership and Use

Summary of main points from Barton and Berger. 2001. Patenting Agriculture.

  • Patents are slowing innovations in biotechnology, preventing benefits from reaching those who need them most: people in developing countries
  • Use of single technologies may involve numerous patents; significant risk of patent infringement
  • Land Grant institutions are pursuing patents, which may divert efforts from developing world needs
  • Patents apply not only to varieties, but to research tools and to genes
  • Many of the patents are controlled by a few multinational companies
  • Possible responses to the problem of overly restrictive intellectual property rights that could be applied by national programs:
    • Stronger standard for rejecting the ‘obvious’ to prevent proliferation of minor patents
    • Narrow scope of patents to prevent companies from monopolizing broad areas of research
    • Develop and apply fair competition laws in seed sector
  • Developing-nation institutions could be granted a license to all or many technologies from the private sector
  • Provide public funding of licenses to developing countries

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Reading and discussion

Read the article ‘Patenting Agriculture’, by Barton and Berger, 2001.

Go to the discussion board and present your views on intellectual property rights. Whom do they serve?


Take the quiz on this Unit on the Blackboard.


Barton, J.H., and P. Berger. 2001. Patenting Agriculture. Issues in Science and Technology Online. http://www.issues.org/17.4/barton.htm#

Economic Research Service, USDA. 2000. Agricultural Genetic Resources: Building Blocks for Future Crops. Agricultural Outlook, November, 2000. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/agoutlook/nov2000/nov2000f.pdf

Gepts, P. 2002. How did plants evolve under domestication? Fate of genetic diversity. http://www.agronomy.ucdavis.edu/gepts/pb143/lec15/pb143l15.htm

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005.

Millennium Seed Bank Project, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Useful links on genetic resources and genebanks.

Raymond, R. and C. Fowler. 2001. Sharing the non-monetary benefits of agricultural biodiversity. Issues in Genetic Resources No. 5, IPGRI. pdf version

Thrupp, L.A. 1997. Linking Biodiversity and Agriculture: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Food Security. World Resources Institute.

Tripp, R. and van der Heidehttp, W. 1996. The erosion of crop genetic diversity: challenges, strategies and uncertainties. http://www.odi.org.uk/nrp/7.html

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