Howard Valentine, executive director of the Peanut Foundation, cautioned that the wording in the National Peanut Board’s current research agreement could have a negative effect on the industry’s current effort towards mapping the peanut genome. He reminded the board that the genome project was very much international in scope.
“We felt like we didn’t have the technology inside our country to do what we need to by ourselves in the genomic effort. My only caution is about the wording in your current contract. When you add the word ‘technology,’ you’ve covered a broad area. I understand your intent and your reasoning, but I think the wording needs another look. You’re only trying to stop or slow the movement of new seed varieties,” Valentine said.
(Editor’s note: This is part two of an exclusive two-part series based on the National Peanut Board meeting held in Atlanta Feb. 5, where industry stakeholders discussed their concerns about the licensing of technology, particularly commercial peanut cultivars, outside the U.S.)
“These universities are intimately involved all over the world in collaborative efforts of technology, growing plants of all different kinds. If you take that away, it makes it very difficult from a genomics standpoint, to share technology with other countries. Also, you won’t receive from them what they’ve developed.
“Remember our germplasm collection that we use for breeding comes from South America. I agree with most everyone who has spoken, but the wording in the current contract is very dangerous, and I encourage you to go back and look at that again, and work with these folks on more specific language. The word ‘technology’ is way too broad. Countries like Brazil are seriously thinking about no longer sharing with us, and that’s not good.”
Freedom to license products
Jackie Burns, University of Florida dean for research for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, told the board that participating universities should be given the freedom to license their products to other countries.
“The licensing we undertake is thoughtful, and it has a natural delay built into it. It’s important to understand the value of that to farmers. Regulations and increasing plant materials adds as many as five years to the process. We believe if we do not license these materials, they will be taken to other countries.
“The international movement of germplasm is extremely important to us. Many of the important traits we try to incorporate into our varieties come from overseas. We want to maintain a free exchange of germplasm for research. But we fear if we prevent the licensing of our varieties internationally, there will be a cascade effect. It adds another layer of complexity to our overall system of trying to keep a diverse germplasm,” she said.
The ability to license products strengthens collaborations between the University of Florida and NPB, said Burns.
“Our ability to license sends a message that our materials – that you’ve all invested in – are not free for the taking. We do the best job we can to write these licenses so that your investments are protected. Investing royalties back into the program is one way we have to strengthen our programs. It preserves our ability to maintain the germplasm exchange among countries. We hope you’ll continue the dialogue,” she said.
Barry Tillman, University of Florida plant breeder, urged the board to delay action on the research agreement.
“We can debate the merits of this for a long time, and we need to because it is a very important issue. In the past, NPB, the universities and the farmers altogether developed a program that was very successful for the peanut industry. My growers tell me the research conducted by universities and the expertise offered have been what has kept them in business.
“That is where I want us to focus—the rest of the world is watching what we’re doing today. Are we going to be restrictive and protectionist, or are we going to be a team player at some level around the world? I believe our best move forward is to continue that partnership that has been so strong and has gotten us to where we are today. If we’re aligned as an industry, working on research that’ll benefit us as an industry, that is where we’ll have the most impact on staying ahead of the remainder of the world. If we’re divided, we’ll be more susceptible to going downhill with our research and not being competitive with the rest of the world. A one-year delay in making this decision will not hurt things. What we risk is the partnership that will propel us into the future, and that’s what we need to preserve,” said Tillman.
Walking the middle path
Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission expressed a concern that if NPB couldn’t reach an agreement with all participating universities, it would affect cooperative research already occurring between the states.
“For 29 years, we’ve set down this path to do some things in research that have helped us to get to where we are. And it’s not just in breeding. If something isn’t worked out, and the board doesn’t get an agreement with the University of Florida, I’m going to tell my board that we need to withdraw our irrigation project that’s a collaboration between Georgia and Florida, because without the University of Florida physiologist, we’re throwing money down a rat hole. I beg you, and I beg the experiment station directors – get together but don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Find a way to work through this because there’s a lot we’ll lose in the process if we can’t have these universities all cooperating and using this money.”
University researchers in the Southeast have traditionally worked together on projects, says Koehler. “We’ve had good research programs in the Southeast because we’ve had all researchers working together. If there’s no agreement with Florida, we’ve just lost our physiologist. It’ll impact us in a negative way if we don’t all get together.”
He acknowledged that the Georgia Peanut Commission passed a resolution this past summer that was more firm than NPB’s position. This past July, the commission approved a motion opposing the sharing of grower-funded technology with other countries in direct competition with U.S. domestically produced peanuts.
“We have to do what the farmers ask us to do, but I would be derelict in my responsibilities if I knew information and didn’t ask my board to look at the other side of this. When you make a decision you need to look at all sides of the thing. We need to follow our farmers, but we also need to educate and lead, and to find the balance in that.”
Koehler said he wouldn’t recommend that his commission change its policy. “I would say I hope there’s some middle ground where the commission could change its policy; I would say I hope so because there’s a lot to lose. There needs to be more discussion, and we need to figure out what can satisfy farmers, the universities and everyone else, so that at the end of the day, we can be the most productive in the world, as we are right now. It wasn’t always that way.”
Jim Craven, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, suggested that some of those in attendance should be consulting more closely with farmers before making their decisions.
“Decisions like this should be discussed with those people who are closest to agriculture – farmers. They generally make the best decisions. I’ll be tough on Florida – I bet you didn’t meet with those people before you made your decision. If you had, we might not be here today. If you, as deans and directors, are not meeting with your producers, that’s your fault.
“We’re discussing something here today that should have been handled earlier. When we send something overseas, using state and federal taxpayer dollars, it decreases income to producers, and we’re doing the wrong thing. If you license a product and it goes overseas, it could further erode the price received by our farmers. Land grant universities will have to answer to the public on this,” said Craven.