16 June 1995

Seed royalties essential if growers are to benefit

ROYALTIES on farm-saved seed are essential to ensure growers continue to benefit from breeders efforts. So say two men well placed to see both sides of the arguments on home-saving – Roy Harris and Paul Sinfield of Perryfields Holdings.

As directors of the Worcs-based seeds company, they have to satisfy shareholders who include both farmers and breeders. Without a sensible income from farm-saved seed, there will be more cuts in breeding research leaving growers as the ultimate losers, they say.

Perryfields is owned by nine UK farmer groups – from North Eastern Farmers in Scotland to SCATS in the south – and German plant breeder DSV. It was formed in January by amalgamating the retail and wholesale firms Farmers Seeds Federal and Inter Seeds, and the research and development business Perryfields Seeds.

As agents for DSV varieties as well as material from another German breeder, Lochow Petkus, the French firm Mais Angevin and several others, Messrs Harris and Sinfield know well what it costs to bring a variety to the market.

Screening programme

The company has an extensive screening programme at its headquarters at Thorn Farm, Ink-berrow, checking Continental varieties to see which might be suitable for UK conditions.

"We know how expensive it all is," says Mr Harris. "We incur all the costs of trialling and developing numerous varieties – but few reach the commercial light of day."

"In an average year we are looking at about 8000 plots of cereals, 2000 of oilseed rape and 5000-6000 of forage crops," says Mr Sinfield. The triplicated plots measure 6m x 1m (20ft x 3ft). By the time a variety goes into national list trials and "our bet is on" it can be costing £1500 a year. To get a cereal through to the second year of recommended list trials costs about £7000. Even then there is no guarantee of success, he says. "The trouble is we dont know is what others are entering."

Mr Harris points to a recent survey by the British Society of Plant Breeders, which highlighted widespread reductions in research investment among the 11 main, but unidentified, UK companies. It reflects changes made since uncertainty over how EU regulations on farm-saved seed would turn out began three years ago.

Among the measures are staff cuts of 25%. Another firm slashed its investment by £1m and stopped replacing retired staff. Others have reduced or abandoned work on specific crops – spring wheat, spring barley, oats, winter beans, sugar beet and potatoes being among the casualties. Other breeders have transferred work, for example on peas and winter cereals, to France and Holland.

Fewer new varieties

Unless the level of royalties on farm-saved seed is resolved satisfactorily from the breeders point of view such cuts will continue, suggests Mr Harris. That will mean growers will have fewer new varieties to meet changing needs.

Mr Sinfield says it is worth reflecting on how the one-time leader in the winter wheat field, the barn-filling but relatively low quality Maris Huntsman, would stand up in todays markets.