Battle royal over a grain of wheat

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Does a grain of wheat have intellectual properties? And if it does, can one charge a royalty for the use of them?

According to the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), the answer to both questions is "Yes". A bitter row has been smouldering for years about how much it is fair for the breeders to charge farmers, and now the dispute is flaring up, fanned by new European legislation which comes into force on 27 April.

The regulations apply to all agricultural seeds, but let us concentrate on cereals. Until about 10 years ago, farmers produced only a quarter of their seed. The rest came from merchants, who bought grain after harvest, cleaned it, sorted it, treated it to prevent disease, and then sold the cream of the crop back to farmers as "certified seed", levying a royalty, which they paid to the BSPB.

In the past decade, however, there has been a rapid growth in the number of contractors who offer a mobile processing service. Specially equipped lorries visit farms and prepare seed on the spot.

Many benefits accrue to farmers from this system. They can retain the best of their own grain, and do not have to transport heavy loads to and from a central depot. On-site processing saves 25 per cent of seed costs, or £60 per ton.

Modern equipment has enabled mobile contractors to produce seed of the highest purity. The key factor is a device called a gravity selector, which sucks air up through the corn on an inclined, vibrating bed. The air separates light grains from heavy: light ones travel uphill and are discarded, heavy ones down. The process removes weed-seeds and grades corn by weight, retaining the heaviest and best.

So far, in the 10,000-odd years that farmers have been growing crops, their right to produce their own seed, without paying royalties, has never been challenged. Now, however, the breeders claim such mobile processing abuses their intellectual property rights.

Because the number of contractors has risen to around 50, breeders have become agitated by their increasing loss of revenue. The cost of research is rising, they say, and they need more income to develop new strains and fight disease.

To the rage of the mobile firms, represented by the National Association of Agricultural Contractors (NAAC), the European legislation will weight things heavily in the breeders' favour, for it will give them the right to levy royalties on all seed corn, wherever processed. Moreover, it will let them set their own rate, since it merely recommends the royalty on home-produced seed should be "sensibly lower" than that on certified seed from merchants.

Last year the levy on certified seed averaged £37 a ton, and the breeders have proposed that a "sensibly lower" rate for stay-at-home farmers would be 80 per cent of that.Since this would remove half the farmers' savings, they are incensed, and are proposing a figure of 30 per cent.

Most accept they will have to pay something; but acrimonious disputes have flared over who is to collect the money from them, and about how the system is to be policed.

What particularly annoys the contractors is that the Government leaves breeders free to set their own rates. So this week the contractors launched an offensive, condemning the proposed new system as impossibly bureaucratic and an intolerable invasion of farmers' privacy, and calling on William Waldegrave, the Agriculture Minister, to reject the new legislation.

Next time you eat a piece of bread, pause to savour the intellectual properties of what you are about to crunch, and to reflect on the high passions aroused by that humble creation, a grain of wheat.