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Biotech development slowing: Plant genetics show promise

MONTEREY, Calif. — Biotechnology has been the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of American agriculture, surpassing the mechanical age, synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals.

Transgenic, herbicide-resistant soybean acreage is expected to continuing grow worldwide, while transgenic cotton acreage has probably peaked.

Monsanto, the leader in the biotech movement, continues to research a new era of transgenic crops featuring attributes like tolerance to stresses like water and cold, improved yields, improved nutritional value, improved nitrogen and plant nutrient utilization among other things.

The question is when. A key USDA/ARS genetic researcher said it would not be soon since work on transgenic crop development has slowed down considerably from its peak in the early 1990s.

However, Steve Duke, research leader of the Natural Products Utilization Research Unit of the National Center for the Development of Natural Products in Oxford, Miss., says that does not mean work has halted on utilizing plant genetics to ward off weeds.

For example, he said researchers have identified rice plants that control barnyard grass and herbicide enzymes in sorghum root hairs that are more powerful herbicides than many of today’s registered herbicides.

Meanwhile, the controversy over biotech or genetically modified crops continues to rage in California with at least one county initiative to appear on an upcoming ballot. Five county votes have already been held and three were defeated, two passed.

California Department of Food and Agriculture says it is a federal issue and is staying out of the fight.

Input by experts

Two experts in biotechnology and plant genetics, a CDFA deputy director and Monsanto’s outreach and issues manager for the West addressed the issues of biotechnology and weed science at this year’s annual California’s weed conference in Monterey.

Duke does not expect anything transgenically dramatic to be introduced for at least five years, even though resistance to biotech crops is breaking down worldwide, even in Europe.

"There is really not much in the pipeline right now" for herbicide resistance except bentgrass, which is expected to be released in two years and glyphosate-resistant alfalfa expected to be approved this year.

However, Duke said traditional plant breeders have identified allopathic traits in certain plants ward off weeds. It is part of the mechanism that makes one plant species out compete other species.

Japanese and Chinese researchers have identified rice varieties that control barnyard grass, and Duke is working with sorghums with strong herbicide enzymes in their roots that control weeds.

These are not transgenic plants, but are traits identified in specific rice and sorghum cultivars that control weeds around them. The one in sorghum is so strong it could reduce herbicide use by 90 percent if expressed in all sorghum varieties.

Not transference

"We are not talking about transferring genes from one species to another," but genes than can be utilized within a species. He believes this sorghum discovery can be patented.

Martin Lemon, biotech outreach and issues manager for the West, said last year in the U.S. 85 percent of the soybean acreage was transgenic; 46 percent of the corn acreage and 75 percent of the cotton acreage.

Developing countries are adopting transgenic crops more slowly than the U.S.

He said the anti-biotech movement in California is not about biotechnology, but it is about radicals wanting to tell farmers how to farm.

CDFA deputy director David Nunekamp said the department’s role in any biotech regulatory affairs is "advisory." Any regulations of biotech crops is a federal issue, he said, even though he said there may be 12 California counties possibly facing anti-biotech initiatives.

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