Thursday, August 26, 2010

HopTalk with Al Haunold, Part XI

Freedom Hops: The Case for Public-Private Breeding Partnerships

Those who know me understand that I tend to fixate. I get the sandy grain of an idea, apply loads of constant pressure (with maximum compression around 3 in the morning.) and either a blood vessel bursts or out pops a pearl.

Here’s my latest pearl in process: the need for public-private hop breeding partnerships.

Here’s what started the itch. I was perusing the Strategic Plan of the Hop Research Council (1998, updated in 2007). By way of background, the HRC consists of a few larger brewers and all the usual merchants in Yakima. These are the insiders who have a tremendous influence on the direction of how public research dollars are spent. They also assess themselves certain fees and make additional money from HRC available through research grants.

Now, everybody knows that I think the world of Dr. Al Haunold, an extraordinary public servant I’ve heralded on this blog as “the People’s Hopmeister.” After escaping the Nazi War Machine and emigrating to the US, eventually my Austria-born mentor came to work at the USDA in Corvallis where from 1965 to 1996 he took the lead in releasing to the public over 20 new hop varieties.

Twenty! For Free! Al didn’t patent those inventions. He never saw a dime from any royalties because there were no royalties – not then, not now. Neither did Uncle Sam, nor anyone else on Al’s team of public breeders. Anybody can get access to rhizomes for hall-of-fame US varieties like Cascades, Willamette, Nugget, Liberty, and others – all the hopwork of our Nation’s No. 1 Hopmeister. Anyone can get ‘em, and anybody can grow ‘em.

Al retired in the late 1990s but his final collaborations were not released until the early 2000s, to wit: Newport and Mt. Rainier (both crosses made by Al in 1994), Horizon (cross made by Al in 1970), and the low-alpha Teamaker. By the way, Teamaker’s roots go all the way back to 1970. The brewers were not keen on it because it contained virtually no alpha acids. But his technicians loved it for brewing hop tea.

Since then – the early 2000s -- not a single variety has been released. What happened? Did the USDA lose its edge? Did they surrender? Or did they just in fine George W. Bush fashion hand over the keys to the candy store to private industry?

To answer that, let’s go back to that HRC “strategy” statement that has so jarred me – a statement which in truth prompted me to get into the game and to sponsor an aroma hop breeding program at Oregon State University.

Here it is, verbatim, from the HRC strategic plan (click here to read the entire text).

"While varietal development is a critical requirement for the continued success of USA hop growers, there is some concern that public breeding programs should not be involved in the development and release of varieties."

Huh? What’s so egregious about public servants serving the public? Who voiced this "concern"? Private breeders who saw an opportunity to fatten up with their snoots in the public’s trough? I asked Al whether there was any fuss about him taking his work too seriously, that is, depriving private breeders of their chance to make a buck on the public’s dime.

Al shrugged off the strange insinuation. "No, I wasn’t aware of any concerns. We didn’t start seeing any private breeders in the US until the mid 1980s when the laws for patenting agricultural products became more lenient. Before then, I actively worked with brewers, farmers and merchants, and we all got alone fine." With stellar results.

The HRC statement continues:

"Several private breeding programs actively work towards developing and releasing public and proprietary varieties grown with the support of a marketing system that helps growers sell their product on the world market." (Italics added).

Private breeders release “public” varieties? Well, that’s a new one. Al just had to laugh. “That’s an oxymoron. A private company can’t make a public release. I don’t know what they’re talking about.” Aside from this nonsense, the meaning is clear: the merchant-big grower-breeder industrial complex has set its sights on controlling the world market. That hop hegemony begins with patenting varieties and granting licenses to selected growers. An excellent strategy for controlling the price and supply of US hops.

It gets better:

“In almost all other crops, public breeding programs no longer serve as the major developer of varieties but do serve as developers of germplasm containing a specific trait… Germplasm developed by public programs is then utilized by private breeders for use in the development of superior varieties – the better the germplasm, the better the varieties that are ultimately made.”

Whoa doggies! First, the phony argument that “everybody’s doing it.” Second, no attempt to proffer evidence that the public is hurt by an aggressive, efficient and amazingly productive public breeding program. Third, the cavalier way in which the privatizers skip over any ethical issues and swinishly assert that the fruits of the public’s labors is their god-given birthright.

“I disagree,” Al offered modestly. “If the public program develops the tools that help us breed superior varieties, then the public should continue to be involved in bringing new varieties to market. In fact it’s more efficient, as the tool makers generally know best how to use those tools in the field.”

What does this mean for Al’s legacy of public service? “Well,” Al pondered, “it’s appears to have been ruined by the pursuit of profit. The private breeders smelled the money. They want the public to subsidize the creation of the tools – the germplasm, which can select for higher yields, disease resistance, etc – but not share anything in return. They want to restrict access by farmers. That goes against everything I worked for.”

The privatization model kicked in about the time Al retired (nice send off, boys!). How many aroma varieties have sprouted since then? Amarillo? Well, that’s an aroma, but it wasn’t the result of a private breeding program—the Gamaches found it on their farms and trademarked it, which means only they or their chosen few can grow it. Ahtanum? It’s relatively recent, but we don’t know much about its parentage. Citra is a recent privately developed hop, and by all accounts it’s a home run. But we don’t know much about where the germplasm came from. Was publicly owned germplasm exploited? If so, did the patent owner agree to share any royalties with the public?

And that’s the point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with private breeding. It should be encouraged. It’s risky. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming (8 – 12 years on average). As long as there is robust access to public varieties, the profit margin on any new variety is a matter of speculation. And any breeding mission will necessarily involve brewer feedback, just as Citra did with Sierra Nevada and Deschutes, to name a few.

The wicket gets sticky when private breeders utilize public germplasm, develop a “new” variety and then attempt to patent it for their own personal gain without sharing the fruits. Since patent applicants generally insist on keeping secret their formulas, recipes and designs, they jealously guard the pedigree of their plants like the proverbial rich ugly old maid and her silver spoons.

How are competitors going to know what’s off limits? And how does permanently restricting access to varieties by farmers, growers and other merchants help grow the craft beer industry anyway? And think of the potential for corporate espionage: it’s not inconceivable that breeders will raid USDA germplasm depositories before the cell-lines are publically released. (See the History of CTZ, here.)

That’s one big reason why Indie Hops funded the aroma hops breeding program at OSU. Public hop breeding, especially of aroma varieties, had essentially died not too long after Al retired. Our goal has been to empower OSU to invent, invent, invent. With inventing comes ownership. With ownership comes the right to impose reasonable conditions. With conditions comes the potential for royalties. With royalties comes a predictable revenue stream, a big chunk of which can be re-invested back into a public-private program.

The death of public hop breeding programs, we believe, is not only a shame, it’s a punch in the stomach to the work and legacy of The People’s Hopmeister, Al Haunold. Indie Hops stepped in after InBev/AB pulled out to fund a first-ever aroma hops breeding program in large part to continue Al’s pursuit of hops.

Does this mean we believe we are entitled to complete ownership of any new hop “invention?” Absolutely not. We believe in sharing. We look forward to executing on a public-private model that exacts sweat, skill, equity and labor from each stakeholder and commensurately rewards them while also serving the hop growing and hop-loving public.

Roger Worthington

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