Some people call it “brown bagging,” “seed piracy” or just plain saving seed, but in production agriculture today it is illegal to save many of the types of seed that we use.
The first really big example of this to hit the market was Roundup Ready and Bt crops. Many individuals had to learn the hard way that Monsanto was serious about protecting its patent and profit from the Roundup Ready technology.
Whether you agree philosophically with this position or not, it is the way the law stands today. Even though glyphosate can now be purchased for as low as $11 or $12 per gallon, you are paying more than that for the right to use that glyphosate on your soybeans, cotton or corn. The same holds true for other herbicide-ready crops such as Liberty Link and Clearfield rice.
In the case of Clearfield rice, the same laws that forbid growers to save Roundup Ready soybeans applies to Clearfield varieties. Essentially, when you buy a bag of Clearfield rice seed you are also buying the right to use that seed in combination with Newpath herbicide to control weeds for one season. You are buying the seed, but only one year's use of the trait. I am not a lawyer, but that is my understanding of the process.
I have heard that several producers are being investigated for seed piracy of Clearfield rice — in only its second year in the market.
Unlike soybeans, most rice varieties developed today come from the public sector (university breeding programs). One exception is hybrid rice from RiceTec. Hybrid rice is an example of a trait that would not need protecting, because hybrid rice segregates after the first year and cannot be saved. New seed must be purchased each year. Many companies are watching the process closely as a way of preserving specific traits.
One thing that differentiates Clearfield rice from some other herbicide-tolerant technologies is stewardship and the potential for red rice to outcross with Clearfield rice.
In addition to wanting to protect their intellectual property and profit, Horizon Ag (the seed company that oversees production of CL 161) and BASF have another reason to ask growers not to save seed. It has been shown that outcrossing can occur if red rice somehow escapes two applications of Newpath herbicide and is allowed to flower along with Clearfield rice. That seed could be harvested and planted in another field. Then not only would the original field have Clearfield red rice, but so would all fields illegally planted with the harvested seed.
A system has been set up by the companies to try to produce and distribute seed in a red rice-free environment. Unfortunately, some seed growers have put Clearfield production fields into red rice areas with the knowledge that two applications of Newpath should eliminate the red rice.
It seems like a pretty good deal to be able to grow seed rice on what was probably previously considered red rice acreage, but it is not a good stewardship practice. Some of those fields have been rejected as seed production fields as a result.
Even if the system is not perfect, it is a legitimate effort to control the problem of outcrossing and contaminated seed. Brown-bagged seed offers no such assurances and may end up costing more in fines than what is saved and increasing the risk of Clearfield red rice on your farm.
Many other seed traits (both input and output) are sure to come in the future. If we do not follow the rules with Clearfield rice and Roundup Ready crops, companies might delay bringing different traits later. From this standpoint, Clearfield rice could be viewed as a test.
As a university staff member, I do not recommend anyone save seed. It is illegal to do so, and the potential for outcrossing is probably the biggest hurdle to the long-term success of Clearfield rice.
Clearfield rice producers who wish to protect the value of this new tool should follow the stewardship guidelines, which include: (1) do not save seed, (2) use two 4 ounce-per-acre applications of Newpath, (3) Follow the Newpath with Beyond or rouging as needed for escaped red rice, and (4) rotate Clearfield rice with Roundup Ready soybeans. There are a number of other stewardship items, but if you follow these four you are on your way.
Roundup Ready rice and Liberty rice are probably the next herbicide-tolerant rice varieties that will be on the market. They will have the same patent protection and stewardship issues as Clearfield rice.
Bob Scott is the University of Arkansas Extension weed specialist. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org