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New Organization Adds Structure to Potato Breeding Efforts

The three states of the Pacific Northwest have created the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI), an agency that will license, promote and market new potato varieties developed by the cooperative breeding program conducted by the three states’ land grant universities.

The new organization gradually came into existence over the last three years. The three state potato commissions that are partners in the enterprise are still discussing the exact shape and functions of PVMI, said Andy Jensen, director of research for the Washington Potato Commission.

Jensen is one of nine board members, along with Bill Brewer, chief executive officer of the Oregon Potato Commission, and Pat Kole, vice president for government and legal affairs for the Idaho Potato Commission.

The other six are growers, two from each state: Randy Bauscher and Jack Hoopes from Idaho, Ellie Chervet and Bob Halvorson from Washington, and Jim Carlson and Dan Walchli from Oregon.

PVMI has two kinds of roots.

One set of roots stems from a feeling of dissatisfaction among some growers who perceived that “their” universities were using “their” grower-provided funding to develop new varieties and then give them away free to anybody who wanted to use them.

These growers want (1) a return on their investment to be gained from royalties for reinvestment in research or (2) control of new varieties by those who invested in their development or (3) both.

Clen Atchley, a seed potato producer from Ashton, Idaho, and one of the first directors of PVMI, said: “It became apparent to the Tri-State Breeding Association that they could no longer just use commission money to develop public varieties, helping others as much as their own growers. Mostly, the universities just released them and let the marketplace decide.

“They were going all over, to other states and Canada and Australia. We felt we’d been shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Growers believe there were “some mistakes made” in variety releases, Jensen said, and that the universities may not be set up to market the varieties they develop. PVMI was established to provide that “management and control.”

He said the potato commissions of Washington, Oregon and Idaho provide “a lot of money,” about $300,000 each year, in support of their joint potato breeding efforts. That money is raised from assessments on growers in the three states.

Pat Kole sees PVMI as stemming from more positive roots. It is the next logical extension from what began with the decision three years ago to coordinate the potato breeding efforts at the three Pacific Northwest land-grant universities, he said. PVMI is now taking the next step by providing a licensing and marketing organization and helping researchers as they respond to demands from the marketplace.

“This is about marketing,” he said, “of returning value to the grower, shipper and processor and to enhance potato breeding programs.”

Perhaps more important, he said, it’s also part of the process of “reinventing the potato.”

“In the United States, we’ve seen some decline in potato demand,” Kole said. “Potato consumption is still huge, but we’ve not been as innovative or as driven by market demand as they have in the United Kingdom, for example. We need different and exciting products for consumers today. Consumers want convenience, nutrition and great taste.

“We live in a changing demography. We have a growing population of immigrants with different tastes. We have aging baby boomers. We have a decline in large families. These require a different approach.

“I wouldn’t lay fault at the doors of the universities. Potato breeders receive a mixed bag of conflicting signals. We need to help bring focus to the process.”

Oregon commissioner Bill Brewer said, “We are trying to make this a real beneficial project for all potato growers.”

The general idea is to have a licensing arrangement for varieties released by the cooperative breeding program in the Pacific Northwest. New varieties will be named and protected under the Plant Variety Protection Act. PVMI will work to market these new varieties. But it will also provide input to the breeders about the kinds of potatoes the market needs – for growers, processors and consumers.

Under discussion now is a three-tiered licensing system in which local seed producers would pay one fee, out-of-state producers would pay a higher fee and out-of-country producers a still higher fee to propagate the new potatoes, and then collect a per cwt. fee from growers who plant them.

Brewer said the new PVMI board is wrestling with the “ticklish area” of exclusive licensing as well. Conceivably, some varieties thought to have a particular economic advantage for Pacific Northwest growers might be exclusively propagated by seed producers who would restrict sales to the area.

Intellectual Property

Agreements between potato commissions (and other commodity organizations as well) and land-grant universities have been developing in recent years as a result of issues surrounding benefits received for funding supplied. In other words, there have been general issues about ownership of intellectual property developed by universities but developed with the support of funds from commodity groups.

The Michigan Potato Commission, for example, pioneered in working with Michigan State University (MSU) to develop an agreement that has become a model for other commodity groups.

In those agreements, the university agrees to give the “right of first refusal” on propagation rights to organizations that provided funding for research that leads to a new patent, invention or variety. The university also agrees to earmark part of the royalty money for the research program that developed the new piece of intellectual property.

Thus, if MSU potato breeder Dave Douches develops a new variety, the Michigan Potato Commission is first in line for rights to propagate it and both Douches and the Crops and Soils Department get a share of the royalty money.

“Growers are trying to develop relationships with universities that provide some order in potato variety releases,” Douches said. “We’ve spent some time here in Michigan hammering that out.”

Brewer said a similar arrangement has been developed between the potato commissions and the land-grant universities in the Pacific Northwest. In general, land-grant universities now have standard arrangements for the division of profits made from patents on all kinds of intellectual property. Royalty money is divided according to formula with the inventor, the department in which the inventor works and the university at large. New agreements cover what share funding organizations may receive given the portion of funding they provide, but that money is not returned to growers. It is invested in further research.

In the Northwest, the deal isn’t as simple because of the large role USDA plant breeders play in potato variety development. They do not release new varieties, Brewer said. The universities do that. But the breeding work of the Agricultural Research Service funnels promising material to universities for further work ¬– and the public at large makes an investment in potato breeding.

Brewer said that PVMI’s relationship with the universities should not affect the USDA potato breeding effort or the interests of the public at large.

“We want to work with everybody,” Brewer said. “We are not isolating ourselves. We want researchers to be free to share germplasm and anything involved in breeding up to the point where it is ready to commercialize.”

The universities will continue cooperative breeding and seek federal plant variety protection as named varieties are released. The Idaho Crop Improvement Association will be the contractor handling royalty collection. PVMI will do the marketing on new varieties and assure that royalties are collected. A staff of one person is being considered.

PVMI recently received a $100,000 Value-Added Producer Grant from the USDA Rural Development Agency to further its efforts to become the leading developer, marketer and educator on new potato varieties. That adds to the $100,000 the three potato commissions have already invested in getting PVMI rolling.

A Worldwide Effort

Charles Brown, a USDA geneticist at Prosser, Wash., said this of PVMI: “In some ways it makes things easier, knowing who’s going to do the technology transfer.”

He noted that potato-breeding programs in other areas of the country are moving in the same direction – Colorado, Texas and the Red River Valley, for example.

But how this all fits into the world of potato breeding is not clear. There are many issues, he said.

One issue is exclusivity. Not only would growers like to have varieties that might be exclusive to their areas, some companies also want exclusive control of varieties. One, Frito Lay, has its own breeding program to do that, which provide its growers with its seed potatoes to plant at certain times for use in certain products in certain plants. Others rely on public varieties released from land-grant universities. Others may work with breeders like the Dutch company HZPC that work to match products to customers needs.

That’s another aspect ¬– competition from foreign companies.

“The Europeans privatized their seed potato industry years ago,” said Ben Kudwa, executive director of the Michigan Potato Commission. “We’re organized differently through the land-grant university system. We have thoroughly commingled public and private money.”

In some ways, it’s a chicken and egg issue. Should breeding programs – public or private – work to develop varieties with desirable characteristics and let the industry look for places where they can be grown? Or vice versa?

Brown said the process works better when breeders go for varieties with desirable traits and growers figure out how to use them. In that sense, the Pacific Northwest’s past breeding behavior – finding good potatoes and letting growers find the niche ¬– is better than defining the niche and looking for a potato that fits it.

Universities pursue both avenues now. They evaluate clones for desirable properties, and evaluate new material for its adaptation to local conditions. That kind of evaluation is now part of a nationwide – even worldwide – testing network.

Breeders now agree on the targets they’re trying to hit, Brown said. They look for potatoes that store well for long times at cold temperatures without sweetening, potatoes that resist diseases and insects, potatoes that have special cooking characteristics, potatoes with superior nutritional qualities and potatoes that have unusual shapes or colors. In the future, we may even breed potatoes that fight cancer or other diseases, he said.

“Ideally, we’d like to have a list of potatoes for every possible use,” Brown said.

Ideally, a breeding program would contribute to both the overall effort to improve potatoes and the interests of local producers who want the best varieties so they can compete in an increasingly global market.

Kudwa said he thinks PVMI might be able to do that.

“I think they’re on the right track,” he said. “Michigan is too small, and we can’t get that done. The Pacific Northwest has the resources. Maybe in the future we can find ways to work with them and make it more of a national effort.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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