On the face of it, it’s not a fair fight. Farming in Florida is hard enough, but then the rules of that fight constantly change.
New bugs and diseases raid crops. Volatile markets say plant now while the weather says plant later. Consumers keep changing their minds about what to eat.
New plant varieties give farmers a fighting chance by giving them fruit that stands up to the latest disease, that survives harsh weather, and that catches the eye of shoppers in the produce aisle.
Those plants are intellectual property – public scientists’ inventions in the greenhouse and grove. The taxpayers, growers, and universities pay for innovation that makes Florida one of the world’s major agriculture successes.
Here again, something isn’t fair. Floridians pay for the development of these new plants, but international producers, sometimes competitors, potentially get them for free.
The problem is, once we sell you the right to use a new variety, a clock starts ticking. After that clock has run for four to six years, no one in Mexico, Brazil, or Europe has to pay for that right if we don’t have legal protections in those territories.
The only way to keep new plant varieties developed by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences from being free in another country is to license them. The license establishes who gets to use varieties, how they get to do it, and at what cost.
International licensing gives Florida growers some other advantages. We license to Florida first. You always have a head start on the newest and best varieties, often years ahead of any producer abroad. And those varieties are created for Florida conditions. You’re whom we have in mind when we’re crossing, hybridizing, germinating, and field testing. We’re trying to come up with a variety that takes to Florida’s soil, not Mexico’s.
The second thing is international producers pay more than you do for the right to use our varieties. This allows us to keep our licensing fees for Florida producers lower, which is only fair since Florida growers invest up front in plant innovation.
These are rules of the fight that we have some control over. In fact, we asked agricultural leaders to talk with us as we refined these rules five years ago, and major commodity associations signed off on the licensing policies of Florida Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., an affiliate of UF/IFAS.
The question isn’t whether international producers are going to use UF/IFAS-developed varieties. They are, whether we license or not. Licensing is the tool we (and by extension, you) use to have them use those plants on our terms. It allows us to influence how much international producers will pay, how widely the plants are made available, and how fast they get access to Florida-developed innovation.
In short, licensing is how we say we’re not going to just sit back and let things happen.
Do we get royalties from this licensing to help assist our plant breeding programs? Sure we do. Most of the money, however, goes right back into inventing the next batch of new varieties – an endless loop designed to always keep you ahead.
So much of it, in fact, that a national survey conducted in 2012 showed that our reinvestment is the most aggressive of all land-grant and peer institutions included.
Our inventors get a small cut, too. While they chose service-oriented careers in public science, we believe that rewards can motivate anyone to do a better job, whether that’s raising crops or coming up with a new vegetable variety.
We can’t contain an idea within Florida’s borders. Inventions and ideas cross the globe in a flash while your fruit inches up out of the ground. The only choice when a popular, profitable new plant variety comes on the scene is whether it gets licensed or given away. We protect our investments through licensing.
Licensing provides steady rules. It’s how we codify fairness. That’s so important because Florida growers don’t fear international competition, but they reasonably ask for it to be a fair fight.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.