Why plant next generation of transgenic traits?

Cotton producers will begin to see a new wave of seed technology beginning this year, but they should consider whether or not it'll improve their bottom lines before planting it, says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist.

“The only reason to plant new technology is to make a profit,” said Brown, speaking at the recent Cotton Production Workshop held in Tifton, Ga.

We'll see some new things in 2006, and we'll see a very competitive market, not only in terms of seed companies but also in technology providers. The real issue is whether or not we can make more with the new technology versus the old. That will require you looking at what you do on your farm and how things shake out,” says Brown.

The U.S. cotton industry, he says, entered the transgenic era in 1995, with a big introduction in 1996 and 1997. “We now have multiple providers of technology. Of course, our market is dominated by Monsanto technology, but we do have at least three providers today of transgenic technology,” he says.

There has been a lot of interest in variety selection over the past years, he adds. “Over the past six years our commitment to Bollgard/Roundup Ready has steadily increased up to 80 to 87 percent in Georgia. Other categories have declined. Bollgard alone is essentially non-existent now. Conventional varieties have continued to decline,” says the agronomist.

Looking back at the pricing of the Monsanto technology in the first two years — in 1996 and 1997 — farmers were on the honor system, says Brown. Growers bought a bag of seed and reported how many acres were planted with that seed. The price was $32 per acre for Bollgard and about $7 per acre for Roundup Ready technology, he says. This honor system led to changes in 1998 when Monsanto went to a per-bag charge.

“They had different seeding rates across the country. For our area, they gave us a seeding rate of 52,000 per acre or 3.6 seed per foot of row on a 36-inch row. It was 3.8 seed per foot on a 38-inch row with a price of $32 per acre for Bollgard and about $7 or $8 per acre for Roundup Ready technology.

“For each variety, they estimated the average seed per pound of a particular variety to reach the price of a bag of seed. We believe our actual, on-farm seeding rate was closer to 2.5 to 3 seed per foot of row. So when we look at these prices, we did achieve some savings based on this seeding rate,” he says.

When Monsanto began charging by the bag, some growers looked at how low they could go with their seeding rates, says Brown.

In 2004, Delta and Pine Land and Stoneville went to a per-bag pricing system, much like is used with corn seed, he says, resulting in a more equitable system.

“When we look at 2005, Bollgard was a little less than $25 per acre, and there was a large increase in Roundup Ready technology to $35 per acre. But you have to look at the whole system. In the early 1990s, the price of Roundup was $40 to $45 per gallon. In 2005, the price of generic glyphosate was in the low range,” he says.

Over the past 10 years, says Brown, there have been significant increases in per-bag charges just for seed, not including the technology. “Something else to consider is that when we talk about technology fees, the seed companies also actually receive a portion of this, probably close to 30 percent.”

Brown also talked about “the good, the bad and the ugly” concerning new cotton seed technology. The varieties, particularly the Bollgard and standard varieties, have performed very well he says, and the pest control successes have been “phenomenal.”

“Looking at the bad, initially, there was some reluctance from some of the seed companies to participate in variety testing programs. Sometimes, when you get that technology, the university is getting it at about the same time for testing. One of the things that have been disappointing about the straight Roundup Ready varieties is that they have been, at best, mediocre in terms of yield.”

There also have been fiber quality concerns among Georgia growers, he says, and some of it has been due to misapplications of Roundup. “We've also seen situations where Roundup was sprayed too late over-the-top.”

In terms of the ugly, Brown mentioned the bronze wilt problems experienced by Georgia growers in 1998. “We've also backed ourselves into a corner to where we're extremely dependent on transgenic varieties, but we can't go back. We also had a situation, particularly from 1998 to 2002, when yields suffered from drought.”

Looking at the surprises associated with transgenic technology, Brown says stink bugs have become a major pest in Georgia cotton. “We have considered them as secondary pests, but the landscape appears to be changing. I personally did not believe Roundup Ready would have a big influence on our transition to conservation tillage, but I was wrong. Conservation tillage has continued to increase. Part of the reason is economics and the desire to cut labor.”

Transgenics now rule everything cotton growers do, he says. “In the early stages, growers opted for just getting the technology, and they almost closed their eyes to agronomic traits and performance. We're in a much more competitive environment today, and that is changing.”

This past year, 72 to 73 percent of Georgia's acres were planted in DPL 555 Bollgard/Roundup Ready, says Brown.

“But we're facing challenges in terms of herbicide resistance, with glyphosate and the ALS-type herbicides. We've seen significant shifts in portions of the state, particularly in the southwest corner, with tropical spiderwort. I don't necessarily attribute this so much to technology but to a reduction in tillage which the technology has facilitated.

“We also have some concerns about the response of corn earworms to pyrethroids. During the time we've changed varieties, we've also had serious concerns in terms of fiber quality.”

Growers now are seeing another wave of new technology, says Brown. “We'll certainly see the combination of existing traits. For example, WideStrike with Roundup Ready and with Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard II with Roundup Ready Flex. We'll see more of those combinations. Multiple companies have glyphosate-tolerant genes, and they'll probably put those with something else to broaden the spectrum.

Further into the future, growers would like to see built-in bug control, and genes that are tolerant to drought and stress, he says, in addition to a resistance to nematodes. Researchers are discussing genes that will help to maintain leaf health and productivity, thereby increasing photosynthesis.

“The future is now for transgenic technology. This year you'll see Roundup Ready Flex or Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard II. Without question, the Flex technology is superior to straight Roundup Ready — the tolerance is there. There were a lot of people looking at this technology in statewide variety testing programs. We got an early look, but we know that one year's performance doesn't dictate how it will perform on your farm.”

Turning to other issues involving new technology, Brown says Georgia growers have seen pigweed resistance to glyphosate. “But we are dependent on the technology. Bollgard technology now occupies about 85 percent of our acres in Georgia. If we had to go back to spraying for worms alone, it would be very difficult. For the longevity of the Bt technology, we need to be looking at converting to the two-gene system. That's not good from an expense standpoint. Your costs will be more, and you'll still have to fight stink bugs. But imagine if we had to go back to conventional chemistry to fight worms because of resistance. We're not saying there are any real concerns at this point, but longevity of the technology is a concern.”

When growers consider the newest technology, they have to ask themselves if it can beat DPL 555, he says.

“DPL 555 has set the benchmark. For new technology to displace the old, it has to beat the bottom line of the old. The new technology will be better, but it comes saddled on a variety. DPL 555 has put out a very big challenge. Maybe there is a replacement for it, but we need to see that on the farm.”

Prior to 2004, there were other people in the new technology market, says Brown. “But Monsanto had Bollgard and Roundup Ready — both excellent technologies proving themselves on hundreds of thousands of acres. In the future, we'll see new technology and new providers. And we'll probably see lawyers getting rich from patent issues. We'll also see new seed providers.

“Looking at 2006 and beyond, in addition to Monsanto, Bayer has Liberty Link and a glyphosate-resistant gene in the works. Deltapine and DuPont have their own glyphosate-resistant genes and some other genes. Dow has WideStrike and the Roundup Ready genes. We'll see more competition in the marketplace in terms of providing technology. But it'll be four or five years before some new technology comes to fruition.”

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