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Biotech Traits: WHAT'S NEW

Frequent industry observation is that consumers will not fully appreciate biotechnology until it directly benefits them. That is why many people in the ag industry are hopeful about the development and eventual commercialization of products with beneficial output (or value-added) traits. The charts on pages 34 through 37 show the many output traits that are now in development. Some of these traits also are being developed through conventional means.

Some traits, such as those aimed at improving animal feed quality, still benefit mostly farmers. Indirectly, however, improved livestock feed components should benefit consumers through environmental and productivity gains.

Farmers also stand to benefit from corn with enhanced ethanol production traits, but both ethanol producers and ethanol-buying consumers could benefit from more efficient ethanol production that reduces overall costs.

Consumer benefits

Close examination of the charts indicates that soybean research could yield many consumer benefits in the future. In fact, Monsanto is in the prelaunch stage for soybeans that have improved protein content. These soybeans will provide higher levels of the protein beta-conglycinin to improve protein flavor and functionality, Monsanto reports. The company developed these soybeans using advanced plant-breeding technology.

In 2005, Monsanto introduced Vistive, a line of low-linolenic soybeans developed to help food companies reduce or eliminate trans fats, and the second generation of these soybeans is in the advanced development stage. This second generation is expected to increase the healthiness, stability and shelf life of soybean oil and enable more foods to be trans fat free, Monsanto reports.

DuPont/Pioneer already is marketing a line of low-linolenic-acid soybeans as part of its biotech alliance with Bunge. This is the first step of a long-term effort to develop a diverse lineup of soybean products with added value for food and feed markets.

High-oleic soybeans are next in line, offering unique food and industrial product benefits, Pioneer reports. Omega-3 oil is in the “proof of concept” stage and offers the potential for significant consumer health benefits, the company adds.

Syngenta Seeds is developing ultralow-linolenic (ULL) soybeans that will contain only 1 to 2% linolenic acid. “Conventional soybeans are as high as 8%, while some of the so-called low-linolenic soybeans being marketed today are in the 3.5% range,” says Jack Bernens, head of Agrisure Traits Business, Syngenta Seeds. “Even the 3% linolenic range is too high to effectively meet processor demand for stable oil and consumer demand for heart-healthy oils. That's because linolenic acid above 2% levels in soy oil may still require hydrogenation. This process creates trans fats that have been shown to increase the LDL cholesterol level in humans.”

Syngenta Seeds will be testing hundreds of ultralow-linolenic varieties in South America this winter, Bernens says. “We will continue testing these varieties in our Midwestern yield trial locations this summer, with the goal of releasing them within the next few years,” he says.

The seed companies also are developing biotech traits for crops other than corn and soybeans. Dow AgroSciences, for example, is working on output traits in canola, sunflower and cotton. By using biotechnology, Dow AgroSciences developed Nexera canola and sunflower seeds that produce no trans fats and are low in saturated fat. Both oils are highly stable due to the combination of high oleic (more than 70%) and low-linolenic (less than 3%) fatty acids, the company reports.

Phase One work at Dow AgroSciences includes development of a novel functional sunflower oil. In cotton, the company's researchers are working on improving fiber quality.

Grower premiums

Most everyone wants to see output traits succeed. But they also agree that growers must receive reasonable compensation for growing these new products — products that may require more identity preservation systems that add to production costs.

Vistive soybeans already have brought growers premiums of up to $0.40/bu., says Kurt Wickstrom, traits manager, soybeans and Vistive, Monsanto. He expects these premiums to remain stable through 2007. These soybeans also have the Roundup Ready trait and yield about the same as other Roundup Ready varieties, Wickstrom says.

Pioneer's low-linolenic soybean contracting efforts also provide growers a $0.40/bu. premium using seed with strong agronomic performance and the Roundup Ready trait so they are competitive with Pioneer's commercial soybean lineup, says Russ Sanders, director of marketing, quality traits, Pioneer.

Capitalizing on ethanol

One of today's hottest output traits in corn is a higher level of fermentable starch, Sanders says. Pioneer has designated its line of 135 high total fermentable (HTF) hybrids as Pioneer IndustrySelect ethanol hybrids.

These products were not genetically modified to contain the trait, but were identified as having higher levels of fermentable starch. HTF hybrids can help ethanol processors realize a 2 to 4% ethanol yield gain, which creates an opportunity for possible grain premiums, Pioneer reports. Ethanol yield gains could potentially mean increased value of around $0.15/bu. with today's ethanol prices, Sanders says.

Whether premiums are paid, however, depends on the ethanol processor. The recent boom in demand has many producers just looking to get all the corn they can, highly fermentable or not.

“Ethanol is a very important part of the U.S. energy policy and holds great potential for farmers,” says Syngenta Seeds' Bernens. Syngenta is currently marketing 33 NK Brand Extra Edge dry-grind designated hybrids to improve ethanol yield gain. These hybrids also were not genetically modified to contain the trait, but have been proven to deliver higher yields of ethanol through a testing method developed by the University of Illinois and used in the Syngenta Seeds ethanol lab in Stanton, MN, Bernens says. “We have developed and plan to market a genetically modified corn that expresses high levels of amylase in grain,” he says.

Monsanto also is involved in improving corn for ethanol production with its Processor Preferred high fermentable corn hybrids.

Feed enhancements

Corn and soybeans with enhanced components for animal feed are gaining a great deal more interest. The accompanying charts show that the trait suppliers are in various stages of development of such products.

Pioneer, for example, is in Phase One and Phase Two of developing improved feed energy traits. Its Pioneer IndustrySelect High Available Energy (HAE) corn hybrids are already in the market. But the company is continuing to work to combine HAE with oil quality traits in Phase Two and additional oil and protein modifications in Phase One. According to Pioneer, oil modification will provide added feed formulation flexibility and help feeders achieve higher meat quality.

What's more, Pioneer reports that the improved feed traits it develops could add from $600 million to $2 billion per year to the total value of the pork and poultry industries.

Pioneer is using near-infrared spectroscopy technology to predict the digestibility of corn grain. The company already has characterized more than 70 hybrids that deliver 1 to 2% more energy than their counterparts. These hybrids could help livestock feeders fetch $0.07 to $0.10 more per bushel in feed value HAE, says Pioneer's Sanders.

Dow AgroSciences offers Supercede HE High Energy nutritionally enhanced corn hybrids from Mycogen Seeds, a retail seed company of Dow AgroSciences. These hybrids provide 40% more oil than No. 2 yellow corn, leading to 5 to 10% more metabolizable energy, the company reports.

Dow AgroSciences also anticipates the launch of a hybrid lineup in 2008 featuring higher available phosphorus. The company reports that these hybrids are positioned to improve animal performance and reduce phosphorus in manure.

Joint venture

Monsanto formed a joint venture with Cargill called Renessen, which is using biotechnology and conventional breeding to produce corn and soybeans with higher levels of oil, protein and amino acids for animal feed, food and energy markets. Monsanto reports that many of these improvements will be marketed through the Mavera brand.

Mavera high-value corn with lysine, developed through biotechnology, is in Phase Four of the pipeline and is expected to provide economic advantages to livestock feeders. The company expects that the product will be available for 2008 planting, depending on regulatory approvals, says Doug Rushing, Renessen's director of government and public affairs. The trait has been submitted for export approval.

Swine, in particular, need lysine for good muscle growth. The first generation of Renessen's high-value corn with lysine contains about 4,000 parts per million (ppm) of free lysine, which will replace a significant amount of synthetic lysine, Rushing says. Producers often use synthetic lysine in their swine rations, and the synthetic lysine business is currently a $1 billion business, he notes. The second generation of high-value corn with lysine is expected to replace 6,000 to 7,000 ppm of synthetic lysine.

Mavera I high-value soybeans also are in Phase Four of the pipeline. They will produce five points more protein than conventional soybeans, Rushing says. One of the big markets for these soybeans will be China. Poultry producers there are looking to boost the protein of their feed rations. These soybeans will be launched in Illinois in 2007.

In the future, American farmers will have greater opportunities to grow products in demand by livestock producers and food, feed and fuel companies. As a result, growers will have opportunities to earn higher premiums, says Monsanto's Wickstrom. At the same time, growers will increasingly need to consider the relationships they have with local grain elevators and processors.

Wickstrom says there may not necessarily be a huge shift toward contract farming with the new output traits coming online, but there could be more on-farm storage and identity preservation systems.

The “generation next” of output traits will offer growers and their customers new options and new profit possibilities.

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