UC, seed firms talk royalties on potato varieties

Negotiations between the University of California and two California seed-potato growers are under way in a unique case of how royalties from a pair of new potato clones, once they are approved under federal plant variety protection laws, should be distributed.

At a recent meeting in Fresno of the California Potato Research Advisory Board, Ron Voss, Extension vegetable crops specialist at UC, Davis, said the university is pursuing application for ownership of the two varieties, A91556-1 and AD83282-5.

The Plant Variety Protection Act (PVP) of 1970, as amended in 1994 and administered by USDA, provides legal intellectual property rights protection for a period of 20 years to developers of new seed-propagated or tuber-propagated plant varieties.

Voss, who has led potato variety screening for the board for the past 27 years, said UC is in talks with the two seed companies, California-Oregon Seed and Zuckerman-Heritage.

The first, A91556-1, is a long-white variety, bred by USDA in Idaho and tested by UC in Kern County and Tulelake from 1996 through 1998. In a misunderstanding, the University of Idaho discarded all seed of it in 1998 and no further testing by UC was possible.


However, in 1997 UC provided A91556-1 seed to both potato companies. UC is negotiating with California-Oregon Seed Co. for a possible exclusive licensing agreement for seed increase and distribution of it.

The second, AD83282-5, is a blocky-shaped white variety, also initially bred in the early 1980s by USDA in Idaho. UC, Davis selected this clone from first-year, unselected seedlings and tested it from the mid-1980s until 1999.

Zuckerman-Heritage received seed in the late 1980s, increased it, and now has the sole supply of seed. UC is negotiating a possible exclusive licensing agreement for seed increase and distribution with the company.

Some confusion resulted earlier after a paperwork error incorrectly labeled AD83282-5 as a red selection from North Dakota State University. After sorting out the identification and determining that neither USDA nor the University of Idaho had ownership claims to it, UC decided last year to proceed with an application for PVP for both selections.

Meanwhile, UC began negotiations with the two seed companies. The initial assumption, based on verbal agreements, according to Voss, was that the university holds the right to protect the selections under the PVP law and to collect any appropriate royalties from seed sales.

Licensing exception

Although it would be an exception to general policy, he said, UC's contention is that licensing arrangements with the two companies would be in the best interests of the California potato industry.

The licensing, details of which have not been revealed, he explained, would give the companies, who have made considerable investment in increasing the seed, some assurance that their development costs could be recouped, while assuring that the varieties will be made available to California growers.

Voss said nearly all U.S. universities, as well as many private companies, have protected plant materials under the PVP. Several varieties from Europe are also protected.

Among other agenda items for the board's only meeting of the year, it approved $100,500 in potato research projects for the coming year by Voss and other researchers Michael Davis, Cooperative Extension plant pathologist at UC, Davis, Harry Carlson, Modoc/Siskiyou counties farm advisor, and Joe Nunez, Kern County farm advisor.

Voss will continue his variety evaluation and cultural practices trials in Kern County, the Intermountain Research and Extension Center at Tulelake and in the Stockton Delta. The allocation is $70,000.

Erwinia reduction

Davis' project will continue progress with ways to reduce Erwinia early dying with application of additional calcium during tuber growth, a practice which potato seed growers are beginning to adopt. He will test bacterial and mycorrhizae inoculants to learn if they reduce disease incidence and progression. The work, funded for $19,500, will also investigate the influence of temperature on the disease.

Carlson will have $5,500 to continue observations for determining irrigation practices for Klamath Russet, Russet Norkotah clones, and other new russet releases in the Klamath Basin. One part of the research will gauge yield response of the varieties to different water supplied. He will also summarize 12 years of irrigation and variety management studies and publish them in bulletins.

Nunez, with a $5,500 budget, will study four mustard species planted as cover crops as a potential replacement for methyl bromide. The mustards release into the soil glucosinolates, which convert into compounds that suppress microbial growth. Studies in Washington found no additional benefit to potatoes from fumigation in plots where a mustard crop had been incorporated.

Voss plans to retire in 2004, and the board, anticipating the protracted period customarily required for replacement of UC specialists, will begin considering options for continuation of its variety screening work.

“The increasing interest in new potato varieties and in health consciousness of consumers,” Voss noted, “provides an opportunity for the California industry to increase its participation in the specialty markets.”

Production of California potatoes, including all types except sweet, amounted to 16.3 million hundredweight, for a value of $202 million, in 2000. The state is the nation's only source of fresh potatoes every day of the year.

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