Managed variety programs allow a variety owner to control any sports that are found, which apple breeder Dr. David Bedford of Minnesota believes is in the interest of the entire tree fruit industry.
The University of Minnesota has assigned the U.S. rights for its new variety, MN 1914, to Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minnesota, which has formed a cooperative to manage the variety. Under the licensing agreement, the university will own any sports that are found, and the university will decide with the cooperative what to do with the sport.
Bedford said that with open-release varieties, if a grower finds a sport—perhaps a limb mutation—in their orchard, the grower is considered to be the owner of that material. This can be a problem for other growers of the variety, he said. For example, an orchardist might have planted thousands of trees of that variety with the hope of deriving a good return from the planting for years to come. However, if someone finds a red sport that’s considered better, the orchardist might be faced with tearing out the trees and starting over with the new sport.
The constant "inflation" of varieties with the discovery of redder sports is also a bad situation for the original variety owner, Bedford said. "We end up with these redder strains that don’t taste as good. We get redder and redder, but we lose quality, and of course Red Delicious is the perfect poster child. Everybody loses.
"That was a big issue for us, just to hold control of the variety and the quality," he added.
So far, only one redder strain of the UM variety Honeycrisp has been reported, he said. One of the quirks of Honeycrisp is it’s color can vary from site to site and tree to tree. There have been people who thought they had a red mutation only to find they didn’t after all, he said.
In other countries around the world, if a person finds a new sport of a variety, the owner of the original variety still has ownership, Bedford explained.
"The United States is the only system I’m aware of that allows someone to find a sport and completely make it their own, and it’s frustrating. Honeycrisp took 30 years from breeding to release, and all it takes is someone to happen to notice a little redder limb and suddenly they’re the new owner of all that technology. Pretty much everywhere else in the world you have to go through the owner of the variety. Technologically advanced as we are in this country, we’re behind the eight ball in intellectual property protection."
Bedford said the requirements to obtain a patent are also quite different in the United States from elsewhere. Although the U.S. Patent Office requires very detailed documentation about the plant, it does not look at the fruit or compare it to another variety. In Canada and other parts of the world, the applicant must submit trees of a new sport that are grown alongside the standard variety so the differences can be judged.