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ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- Twenty years have passed since Roundup Ready 1 soybeans were first deregulated, and the trait is coming off patent this year into a changed agricultural landscape.
Biotech traits in agriculture are the norm, new herbicide-tolerant crops are close at hand, and Roundup Ready 1's original patent-holder, Monsanto, is eager to relegate its very first biotech trait to the annals of history.
But for now, countless farmers still grow soybeans with the Roundup Ready 1 trait, and its transition off patent leaves a host of questions for the industry and farmers. Will seed be cheaper this fall? Will generic Roundup Ready seed be available? Will farmers start saving seed again? And perhaps most importantly, will the trait remain marketable?
Monsanto has promised to maintain international registrations for their post-patent Roundup Ready 1 soybean trait through 2021, which means companies and farmers can safely send the seed into the commercial grain stream for the next seven years. However, the availability of generic seed and the future of the Roundup Ready 1 trait remain uncertain.
A SEED BOTH GENERIC AND RARE
Starting with this year's soybean harvest, growers can legally save soybean seed with the Roundup Ready 1 trait, but only if there are no other patents on that seed.
That's a big catch. Most companies that have licensed the Roundup Ready 1 trait from Monsanto have put it into soybean varieties that are themselves patented -- a process called "varietal patenting."
One of the largest suppliers of Roundup Ready 1 seed is DuPont Pioneer. Every soybean product at Pioneer is protected by multiple patents, usually for genetics, other biotech traits, or specific breeding techniques, Pioneer spokesperson Jane Slusark pointed out.
"We will continue to enforce and defend our intellectual property across our soybean product portfolio," Slusark told DTN in an e-mail. "DuPont Pioneer has a field education effort to help growers understand the importance of protecting intellectual property, in addition to product compliance checks to ensure IP [intellectual property] regulations are being followed."
Dermot Hayes, a professor of agribusiness at Iowa State, said in a best-case scenario, the end of this patent would lead to cheaper, more abundant supplies of the Roundup Ready 1 seed.
"The positive outcome would be a lot of competition for Roundup Ready 1, and it becomes kind of a cheap commodity product with a lot of availability," Hayes told DTN. "And that's what should happen. Farmers have paid licensing fees for this technology for 20 years."
Yet growers expressed doubt to DTN that they would see cheaper Roundup Ready 1 seed varieties next spring, and Slusark confirmed their suspicions. "Our pricing is driven by the value the product provides to growers -- not licensing fees," she told DTN.
Theoretically, a company could scoop up the un-patented trait and slip it into some generic soybean seed, but the result wouldn't be very valuable to a farmer, Ray Gaesser, farmer and president of the American Soybean Association, pointed out.
"They would have to sign a license agreement with a genetics company to start their own business, because I don't know where you're going to get many yield-competitive public varieties out there," he told DTN. Moreover, public breeding projects at universities often patent their seed, in order for the universities to recoup some of their costs, he added.