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Change happening in wheat breeding programs

By Carol Stender
cstender@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:04 AM

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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Change is rampant in wheat breeding programs across the country and it has the University of Minnesota wonders what path its program should take.

Several universities have signed germplasm access agreements with private seed companies, said U of M wheat breeder Jim Anderson at the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association's annual meeting in Fergus Falls.

The U of M has talked to companies about collaborations, but they don't "have anything formal at this time," he said.

Concern is increasing about access to germplasm.

The U of M, North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University have arrangements to share germplasm for their public wheat breeding programs. Obtaining germplasm from NDSU has become more involved since the Fargo-based university signed a germplasm access agreement with Monsanto last year. The private seed company signed similar agreements in 2010 with Kansas State and Virginia Tech.

"Germplasm development and exchange has been historically strong in wheat, but it has eroded in soybeans," Anderson said. "I am seeing it erode in wheat where some of these agreements come into play. My concern is how much access (to the germplasm) there will be."

The benefits of a collaboration with a private seed company include improved varieties and technology for the wheat industry, improved access to germplasm and helping to maintain wheat as an economically viable option.

Risks include reduced germplasm exchanges with other universities and companies, a diminished role for public programs and a change of breeding program priorities.

MCIA is taking a neutral position, but would like to be part of the discussions between the U of M and any private company considering an access agreement, said the association's president Duane Dahlman of Cokato.

"Could these arrangements hurt the public side?" Dahlman asked. "That's the concern."

He wonders how private seed companies will protect the public side.

Seed firms want the public side to stay strong since it is the training ground for students who may become wheat breeders, Dahlman said.

If the U of M doesn't enter into a germplasm access agreement, the wheat breeding program may have limited access to germplasm. The result could be a niche market breeding program rather than one that develops varieties for a wider marketplace.

"Dr. Jim is much more valuable than that," Dahlman said. "He has a great program going already."

Jim Peterson, vice president of research at Limagrain Cereal Seeds, understands the importance and efforts of the public breeding programs. He was a wheat breeder for more than 20 years at Oregon State University.

He made the move to Limagrain three years ago after realizing the evolution in the wheat breeding industry would happen rapidly.

"I saw this as a way of looking towards the collaborations as broadly as we can to partner with the public programs," he said.

The seed company, started by farmers, is based in France.

"We work for farmers, they just happen to speak French first," he said. "They have the foresight and energy and directive to take a French breeding program and to make it a multi-national company. Our goal is to make profitability on the farm."

Limagrain isn't limited by state boundaries. It captures the best genetic material in the prime growing areas.

The company offers an approach and attitude to the private-public collaboration that differs from other companies' agreements.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," he said. "We would like to work within the programs that already exist."

Through their arrangements, they exchange germplasm, testing and trials with the universities. As they do the research including the discovery and application of molecular markers, cropping systems and agronomic research, they co-develop and co-own the varieties with the first option to market.

They bring international resources and technology, access to a global germplasm base, molecular marker support, access to Novel and GM traits, legal support and marketing expertise and research.

Through an agreement with the University of Idaho, Limagrain and UI have developed a jointly owned germplasm and wheat varieties.

"We think there is an opportunity to commercialize," he said. "We handle the IP and intellectual property rights and share the royalties back with the University. In the last year and a half, we have quadrupled the size of their program as well as ours. We are putting the data together and giving our program a better dataset out of the arrangement and we are handling the working with the foundation seed folks to get the produce out the door. Sometimes they released a variety and no one knew about it. Now people know about the varieties that are coming up."