James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 3, 2009

Sugar Belle Citrus and Patents

Filed under: agriculture,biology,Plants — Tags: , , — James @ 2:02 am
Mandarin Orange (Not a Sugar Belle)

Mandarin Orange (Not a Sugar Belle) from dungodung on flickr

We’ve been talking about grains and genetic engineering strait for a few days, so I thought it’d be the perfect time to put up a story about conventionally bred citrus. The University of Florida put out a press release about a new mandarin orange breed developed by Fred Gmitter, called Sugar Belle. The fruit is of course described as delicious and it may well be, I can’t say one way or the other. Importantly to a different group of people (producers rather than consumers of citrus fruit), the fruit matures 4-6 weeks earlier than other varieties of mandarin, making the harvest better timed to cater to the demand for citrus around Christmas.

Fred has been developing the breed since 1985, when he found the tree Sugar Belle was bred from in the experimental plot of another plant breeder who’d just retired. That’s twenty-four years of research and development. 1985 is the year “new coke” was released. Soviet and Western forces still faced off against each other across the Berlin Wall. If Sugar Belle was a person, it’d already be old enough to be in grad school right now.

The lesson here (one of them) is that it takes a long time to breed fruit trees.

But that’s not the only interesting thing about this story.

The other part is what is going to happen now that the Sugar Belle is developed. The University has patented* the Sugar Belle, and licensed the rights to grow the fruit in the US to a company called New Varieties Development and Management. I can’t even tell if that’s a for profit or non-profit company, but either way the plan is then to sell or license the trees (propagated by grafting to maintain the traits that make the Sugar Belle unique) to farmers. Five growers are already growing the trees with more to follow.

There also seems to be some Florida-California rivalry going on. NVDM has the rights to the entire US so as long as they’re only interested in selling to Florida growers California growers won’t to grow a single Sugar Belle tree.

I mentioned the Sugar Belle had been patented. The current legal system allows plants, even non-genetically engineered ones to be patented.* The University of Florida has been supporting Fred Gmitter for close to a quarter century as he did his breeding. The theory is that the University will take the money it earns from licensing it’s patent on Sugar Belles to NVDM and use it to support other researchers who are working on ideas that might pay off in 2022 (24 more years from now).

The flip side is that any improved plant variety is what is know in economics as a non-rivalrous good. That means one person benefiting from the good (in this case growing a need breed of mandarin orange) doesn’t take away from the ability of others to benefit from the same good (also growing the citrus). The example the wikipedia article I just linked to uses the example of broadcast television. My having fun watching TV doesn’t impact your ability to enjoy watching TV too. There’s no competition because a television station can be as easily watched by one person and by a million. Most types of information are non-rivalrous goods, that’s why the free and open source movement works. Your use of Ubuntu doesn’t take anything away from my use of Ubuntu (if anything it makes it more valuable since the more popular the operating system, the most software is written for it), so why shouldn’t I try to convince you to try it?

But if new breeds of plant are freely available (or cost just what it takes to propagate them with no money going to those who created them) who pays for the the next round of improved breeding?

I’m not coming down on one side or the other here because I really have mixed feelings. If nothing else I hope it shows the issue of patents isn’t unique to genetic engineering. It extends to all crop improvement, and in the internet age beyond plants to software, music, movies, books, break-through drugs; all things that can be reproduced again and again for practically no cost. Yet the cost of producing them in the first place in non-zero.

How to you compensate creators enough that they keep creating while still reaping the full benefit of non-rivalrous goods? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that it impacts a lot more than just plants. Everyone from farmers, to researchers, to the kid grabbing more music off of Limewire than he ever could have afforded to buy(or whatever kids are using these days), to the singers and songwriters who recorded those songs, to programmers both paid and volunteer, to people being bankrupted paying for prescription drugs that cost $.05 a pill to produce, to the pharmaceutical researchers who spend a billion dollars or more to create the first pill of a new drug so that the second pill, and all the others after that cost $.05 to make, to anyone who ever has or ever will use a computer and didn’t write all their own software by hand.

*Though I’m sure it comes as a shock to those who conflate GMOs and everything having to do with corporate control of agriculture.


  1. I think you make a good point here. Alot of people do not understand the amount of research and development goes into breeding, GM or not. Trees are a particularly good example. I remember talking to a palm oil breeder who inherited a project from another breeder, 30 years on and he was working with the F3.
    If people really do not want to have parents on plants then they would have to be willing to pay for it though taxes into public research. I also think that they might be surprised at its enormous cost.

    Comment by Greg — November 3, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  2. On the other hand, compared to a lot of things governments spend money on, I think cost-benefit ratio of plant breeding is quite good for the same reasons I talked about above. Compared to the cost of developing improved breeds the cost of producing enough seed (or grafting material) for everyone who wants it is a tiny expense. With the sort of exception to the rule being hybrids.

    I know a guy who grew up in Thailand and he tells horror stories about oil palm breeding. With fruit trees, in a pinch you can at least graft a bud from the tree you’re breeding onto a mature tree to get it to flower early, I imagine that doesn’t work with oil palms.

    Comment by James — November 3, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  3. I guess if plant breeders looking for funding were smart they your point to the grotesque amount of money spent on these physics experiments. like $300 million telescopes or the hadron collider. Great we might see some light from extremely far away that has been travelling space since before earth was formed or we might see a particle that doesn’t exist in space any more whoo! This is all good an dandy, very interesting in fact, but Im thinking we should maybe worry about a few minor things, like feeding everyone, before we start probing the edge of our universe.

    Also, seeing what tree breeders go though definitely makes you appreciate corn.

    Comment by Greg — November 4, 2009 @ 9:09 am

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