Biotech revolution continues growth

The 1 billionth acre of genetically modified crop was planted this year, marking a remarkable decade of change since biotechnology was introduced into world agriculture.

As dramatic a change as that represents, speakers at a special biotech session of the Western Society of Weed Science annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year made the last decade sound like just the beginning of the biotech impact on American agriculture.

Tom Peeper, weed science professor at Oklahoma State University; Jim Bone, Valdosta, Ga., U.S. field development manager for DuPont; Stott Howard, Des Moines, Iowa, global technical manager for Syngenta; Al Scoggan of Kansas City, Mo., northwest regional development manager for Bayer CropScience; and Doug Rushing, director of technical development for Monsanto all said changes are coming faster than anyone could have imagined when Rushing held the first “magic” herbicide-resistant soybean in his hand just a few years ago.

Perhaps the most dramatic change coming was outlined by Peeper, who predicted that wheat, rice, corn and other exportable U.S. “calorie” crops soon will be replaced by energy-producing crops in the United States to reduce America's dependence on foreign energy supplies.

“Wheat will become economically obsolete,” predicted Peeper, who added U.S. agriculture in the future must focus what can be grown and sold at home.

When introduced, biotechnology was heralded as the tool that would make low-value wheat and similar crops more competitive in the world market. However, the controversy over biotechnology that has been largely centered outside the United States has effectively prevented the use of the technology in those crops.

Peeper said if biotechnology is introduced into U.S. wheat, rice or aother low-income crop, world export markets for all U.S. wheat or rice would be in jeopardy. Farmers and marketers have not been willing to chance that.

Peeper predicted U.S. farmers will switch from calorie crops for export to higher-value crops more in demand for this country. He says that demand will come for energy-producing crops like canola, soybeans, sunflowers and corn for ethanol.

He said there will be a big push for crops that will produce biodiesel and other fuel to lessen American dependence on oil from the Middle East where lasting peace will continue to be elusive. Becaue biotechnology is more accepted in the United States, biotech traits will continue to play a key role in enhancing production from energy-producing crops.

Although biotechnology is in the forefront of American agriculture, Peeper and others continue to search for new crop protection chemistry.

Scoggan said it has been more than 20 years since a truly new herbicidal mode of action has been discovered. Today, he said, 75 percent of the world herbicide market is covered by just six different modes of action.

Resistance is surfacing to several of the molecules, and “a new mode of action is out there somewhere and we have to find it. It's overdue.”

Companies like Syngenta are continuing research and development of new chemistry to complement biotechnology, said Howard.

Registration of new chemistry is more complicated than ever before with a wide array of factors — from environmental constraints to application technology to cost factors — involved in getting them to market, according to the speakers.

Speaking to the group of weed scientists, all the presenters said many more disciplines are involved in vegetation management than simply weed science.

It requires a systems approach or landscape ecology problem-solving involving not only weed control, but also agronomy, plant breeding, soils and water and most other disciplines involved in producing a crop, said Peeper.

From a weed control perspective, Peeper said vegetation management in the future will focus not on annual herbicide use, but on a system approach to get weeds off the farm permanently using alternative cropping patterns, tillage and other factors.

Bone called the systems approach “intelligent pest management.”

Generic products are playing a major role in the ag chemicals industry with about half the pesticides used today off patent. Eighty percent of herbicides used today are off patent. This, according to the speakers, is having a positive impact on cost containment for farmers. However, the flip side of is there is less revenue for major chemical companies for research and development.

The speakers indicated the consolidation in the industry, which has resulted in but a handful of major chemical manufacturers, will continue.

The cost of research and development will continue to rise, and the loser in that will be so-called minor crops. A government-funded IR-4 program similar to what is now used to register chemistry is being developed for biotechnology in minor crops.

Rushing said the next wave of technology offers more exciting possibilities than the past. Those include modifying crops to withstand cold and to thrive under low-water conditions and developing crops which contribute to healthier diets. He expects 200,000 acres of low transfatty acid soybeans to be planted this year. Drought-tolerant corn has already been successfully tested in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Rushing said analysts predict a doubling of ethanol use by 2010. He said there are 81 ethanol plants now in the United States and 14 under construction. Monsanto is screening corn germplasm for high extractable starch for ethanol production.

On the immediate horizon is the second generation of Roundup Ready cotton which opens a wider window for glyphosate applications and the anticipated introduction later this year of Roundup-tolerant alfalfa (25 million acres of alfalfa are grown in the United States).

Monsanto has licensed 200 different seed companies to use its technology and has purchased seed companies to transform itself into a global leader in germplasm development.

“We learned the hard way that no matter what trait you have in a variety, if the germplasm is not accepted by the farmer it will not be accepted,” he added.

He said of late there have been significant yield increases in most major crops, and he expects even greater increases in the new future.

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