July 20, 2017

Protecting Seed Technology

If developing new technology in the ag space is the first step, right behind it is protecting that intellectual property right so that it can be monetized by the inventor and utilized by the industry.

Protecting the work of plant breeders has been an ongoing concern for generations, but now that new technologies are being used and products introduced at an even faster clip, that protection has taken on an added sense of urgency. In 2011, the issue was discussed by members of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and the result was the launching of the Seed Innovation and Protection Alliance (SIPA) to create a unified and consistent voice for education and best practices around intellectual property protection in the seed arena.

James Weatherly, who is the executive director of the Denver, Colorado, based organization, has become the one-person staff for the SIPA. In a sentence, the association sees its singular job as being “solely focused on innovation and intellectual property issues in the seed industry.”

Weatherly recently discussed the issue with Western Grower & Shipper and stressed the importance that ag community members be educated on the topic and know their rights and responsibilities. In fact, he said the forming of the group was incentivized by the “distinct lack of information about innovation.” He said the agricultural industry is fast moving and there is much work being done with regard to new seed technology, new planting technology and innovative seed treatments.

“Our goal is to get the word out concerning new innovations coming down the pike.”

SIPA is available to help innovators learn how to protect their innovations and it is also there to educate growers as to their rights and responsibilities in buying and using new seed technology. For the most part, Weatherly said the industry is aware of the issue, but there are always those who are uninformed and others who just don’t care.

Making it a bit more difficult, he said is the fact that there are rarely black and white answers. Every situation is different and types of protection are also different. There are various types of intellectual property (IP) protection. There are limited use agreements, Plant Variety Protection (PVP) and patents. Each comes with a different level of protection.

In general, Weatherly said growers should be aware that the purchasing of IP protected seed to grow a crop is often a one-time use. A grower basically is not allowed to save some of the seed, plant it and harvest a seed crop for use in future production. That same principle applies within seed companies and academic institutions. Weatherly said those protections are not always evident to the user and it is one of SIPA core responsibilities to educate the industry about this topic. It does so through articles such as this as well as attendance at industry conferences, shows and events, and through direct inquiries from growers.

Typically a seed purchase comes with a label indicating its level of intellectual property protection, but the SIPA executive said first and foremost growers need to ask the question. They need to ask their seed suppliers what they can and can’t do. And for the gray areas, SIPA is available to answer any and all questions.

Weatherly said specific coatings and even planting techniques can be and have been protected. Again, he said SIPA is available to not only point out wrong doing but to help innovators protect their own new technologies. The organization includes seed companies, growers, producers, authorized dealers, brokers, suppliers, service providers, universities, as well as state agencies.

More information is available on the organizations website at seedipalliance.com.