18 December 1998

Seed breeders hit hard as sales figures slump

By Charles Abel

FARMERS have walked away from certified seed in droves this autumn and the loss of royalty revenue is hitting breeders hard. In a bid to improve future finances talks are continuing on extending royalty collections to farm saved potato seed.

Estimates from NIAB and SAC suggest a 12% downturn in certified seed sales this autumn, slashing royalty payments to breeders by £2.75m, says the British Society of Plant Breeders.

Main reasons for the slump are reduced plantings, particularly of winter barley and in the weather-hit north, lower seed rates and a continuing rise in farm saving, explains BSPB chairman Roger Turner.

Farm saving of winter wheat is expected to be up 6-7% and seed rate cuts are widespread as growers seek to tailor plant populations more accurately and minimise establishment costs. Increased sales of certified spring seed are not expected to have a great impact on the overall loss.

"Although total income from farm saved seed royalties is up £0.5m, that still leaves a £2.25m gap in income for breeders," Dr Turner notes. "It is a severe hit which could lead to further cost cutting measures and the possibility of restricting research to fewer crops in future."

Breeders need a reasonable return to finance development work, stresses Tony Guthrie, BSPB chairman and managing director of Sharpes International. "We as plant breeders are trying very hard to keep British farming competitive."

He cites higher yielding oilseed rape, cereal varieties with better disease resistance and better quality for home and export markets, plus a wider choice of better tasting vegetables, as recent examples.

NIAB director John MacLeod agrees there is no sign of a slow down in variety improvement. "There is no plateauing out of the curve on annual improvement."

Meanwhile, talks with the farming unions about levying royalties on farm saved potato seed are well advanced. "We are hoping to have something sorted out in the not too distant future," comments Dr Turner.

One sticking point concerns the marketing levies made by some breeders to finance variety promotion. "We are keen to phase that out and replace it with a single royalty to avoid confusion."

However, mechanisms for collecting the royalty and deciding which year to use as a base for calculations remain contentious, he notes.