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New Technology and Modernizing World Agriculture


Dr. Harry B. Collins

Vice President-Technology Transfer

Delta and Pine Land Company

Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have recently been awarded a patent to a specific method to control transgenic gene expression in plants. This technology has many future applications, including the development of a germplasm and/or technology protection system.

Germplasm and/or technology protection systems can provide multiple benefits to agriculture. Benefits include protecting the environment from gene escapes into other plant species; maintaining the integrity of refugia acres (1) by eliminating the planting of saved seed and protecting the technology provider's investment against free use of technology. Protection systems help insure that individuals and companies developing new traits and technologies for commercial varieties have the ability to earn a fair return on their investment. Companies tend to focus their attention on the development of new technologies in crops where they have the incentive to do so. This in turn leads to new products and more choices for the producer. With the development of high value traits and transgenics, these systems will become increasingly important. Protection systems will not limit the number of choices for the farmer. On the contrary, these systems will help farmers in all areas of the world gain access to the most technologically advanced tools and products available to produce more profitable crops.

The most common type of germplasm protection system is hybrid seed production. Although primarily a system for increased yield via heterosis (improved performance), it is also a protection system. Hybrids are seen in the majority of cross-pollinated crops, such as corn, sunflower and canola. Because hybrids produce seed that is not uniformly like the parent seed, there is a reduction in overall performance when hybrid seed is saved and replanted. Thus farmers, recognizing the value added from increased yields are willing to buy new hybrid seed each year instead of saving and replanting seed from their previous crop. Their purchase of new seed each year insures quality and funds new research that leads to new and improved products.

Few germplasm protection systems have been successfully implemented for self-pollinated species, such as cotton, soybeans, and wheat. Hybrid production, for example, in these crops has been difficult to develop, costly to implement and product performance has not shown the level of heterosis required to justify the increased production costs. The development of a protection system for use in self-pollinated crops is a breakthrough that will give companies a way to receive a fair return on their investment leading to future research investments and improved economic returns to farmers.

D&PL and the USDA are currently developing a germplasm and/or technology protection system (TPS) covered by their patent. The TPS will have broad applications in self-pollinated varietal crops. Varieties developed incorporating this technology will allow farmers to grow a normal crop the first production season. However, seed produced and saved from this crop will not germinate the following generation and will eliminate the ability to gain multiple use from one purchase.

The ability to prevent multiple use from one purchase of improved varieties of self-pollinated crops will benefit the world agricultural community by insuring that farmers in all areas of the world have an opportunity to share in the advantage of enhanced planting seed. This development will broaden access to continuing agricultural improvements. The centuries old practice of farmer saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to third world farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete varieties because of their taking the "easy roads" and not planting newer, more productive varieties. This is particularly true in the development of "new technologies" and transgenic traits. These developments are expensive. Future research will, of necessity, focus on crops and in areas of the world that support the development of these technologies through either the purchase of new seed each year or the continued payment of some type of technology fee. TPS will not eliminate the mutiple use from one purchase choice available to farmers in third world countries, since traditional seeds will continue to be available just as they are now. However, TPS will serve to enhance the breadth of choices by increasing the alternatives a farmer has to produce his or her crop. Unlike many of the advancements of the first "Green Revolution", the new tools being developed today reduce the number of inputs needed for higher and more profitable yields.

The TPS also may address several concerns that have been expressed by the public as transgenic research increases and genetically altered crops come to market. For example, the possibility of escape of a transgene into wild populations of plants is virtually eliminated when the TPS is used. Once turned on, the TPS is irreversible. Seed produced from a (sic) unwanted pollination will be non-viable and will not germinate, thus greatly reducing, if not eliminating, the risk of gene transfer to wild or other non-targeted plant species.

Genetic diversity in many important crops is a real concern of both private and public breeders today as seeds are enhanced with value-added traits and companies protect the use of their improved varieties by patents and plant variety protection laws. There is no correlation between TPS and lack of genetic diversity. In fact, with the increased incentive for many private seed companies as well as universities to breed crops which have not received much attention in the past, it is entirely possible that diversity will increase as breeders focus on providing unique and improved versions germplasm to farmers.

In the end, it is the farmers who will decide if the TPS and all other new agricultural technologies have real benefits. Seed companies and technology providers are in business to help the farmer be more successful. If a technology does not bring benefits and increased prosperity to agricultural producers, they will not pay for the technology. If the farmer is not successful, companies no longer have a consumer. It is in everyone's interest that more choices be available to all of the world's farmers, and the TPS is a means of achieving this goal.

Delta and Pine Land Company and subsidiaries breed, produce, condition and market cotton and soybean planting seed.

CONTACT: Dr. Harry B. Collins Vice President-Technology Transfer Delta and Pine Land Company P.O. Box 157, Scott, MS 38772 USA 601-742-4533 (Telephone) HARRY%202-2946@MCIMAIL.COM

1 Refugia acres: Part of Insect Resistance Management Plans. Percent of acres required by regulatory agencies or technology providers to be planted to a non-insect resistant variet