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Ag of the future: Tech changing genetic potential of crops

Ag of the future: Tech changing genetic potential of crops

Companies are turning to biological approaches for boosting crop yields. The range of approaches is varied, from seed treatments  to new sprays. Alliances bring more horsepower to product development efforts.

There’s an evolution taking place in the crop production world as crop protection companies and a host of others seek to maximize the genetic potential of the seed you plant. Decades of success with what many call “traditional chemistry” will continue, but now companies are turning to biological approaches to protect crops and enhance plant performance.

The result will be a new set of options in the future for keeping plants healthier and protecting crop yield potential until the combines roll. How this new approach to plant performance will look is still unfolding, but rest assured you’ll see more new ways to boost yields by the end of the decade.

Many of the moves creating new-think approaches to crop production come as major players in traditional chemistries acquire companies or develop new relationships. For example, BASF acquired Becker-Underwood and later created the Functional Crop Care division.

“For us, Functional Crop Care is not just about biologicals and inoculants,” says Juergen Huff, senior vice president, Functional Crop Care, BASF. “It’s about combining tools to increase the farmer’s yield.”

He explains the goal is to get away from “product definitions” and move toward solution-based decision-making.

Plant breeders have estimated the built-in genetic potential yield for corn is 500 bu./acre or more; for soybeans, the number is 200 bu. or higher. Super crop contest yields have hit records that show those numbers aren’t far off. You want to hang on to every potential bushel that crop can produce, and these new approaches could help.

Huff says BASF is working on novel ways to increase fertilizer efficiency in the soil. “Inoculants and nitrogen management have been around in soybeans for some time,” he says. “We have nitrogen management technology in our pipeline that we’ll be bringing to market.”

Challenging tech

Of course, biobased technology challenges formulators and companies in new ways. Soybean inoculants are the granddaddy of biobased solutions for crop yield enhancement. The living rhizobia that help soybeans fix needed nitrogen nodules have been around for some time, but getting living rhizobia from fermenter to field as a viable product was a challenge.

Now these experienced companies are taking the approach a step further, creating rhizobia and seed-applied biological crop inputs for seed treatments.

“To make that work, you need a holistic approach,” says Huff. “You need to have the right polymer to put the inoculant where it belongs and look at the other seed treatment components. It is a complex relationship optimizing seed, soil and foliar treatments.”

Yet creating seed-treatment-based approaches makes use of this new technology easier, requiring the farmer simply to set up the planter, fill the hopper and head to the field.

Already, many soybean producers are using a biological seed treatment in the Poncho/Votivo combination from Bayer CropScience. The Votivo portion controls nematodes using a biological approach, which was a first for the industry.

Bayer CropScience bought AgraQuest in 2013, and is working on maximizing that firm’s biobased approaches in new ways. Recently, the company announced it had purchased the Biagro group in Argentina, further strengthening its biobased efforts. Biagro produces soybean inoculants.

“We’re looking for new ways to improve crop yields,” says Ethan Luth, seed growth product manager, Bayer CropScience. “We’re looking at biological solutions for pests and diseases.”

He points to the pythium species where a biological compound might be applied that would turn on the plant’s own defense mechanisms to battle the disease. This kind of approach is not a new idea; the challenge is finding the compounds that stimulate a healthy plant response when disease is present — or in advance of disease.

Another major player in the biologicals market is Syngenta, which is officially rolling out Clariva Complete for soybeans in  2014. The treatment uses a naturally occurring soil bacteria — Pasteuria nishizawa — which has a direct mode of action on nematodes. Essentially, spores for the organism are in the seed treatment, and soil moisture moves them from the seed.

The rhizosphere

As more biological products enter the market, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about the rhizosphere. This is the zone surrounding the roots of plants, and there’s a lot going on down there. The relationship among the roots, the soil and the organisms in the soil is the key, and it’s also where new biological products will “interface” with the system.

Tom Johnson is the founder of T J Technologies, which Novozymes acquired in 2013. Johnson, who now serves as senior consultant for Novozymes, notes that companies are recognizing that increasing the incidence of beneficial organisms in the rhizosphere will allow the plant to function more closely to its genetic potential.

“There’s something on your soil test that you forget to measure — time,” he says. “It doesn’t tell me how long that fertility will take to get from the soil to the rhizosphere. Biologicals can reduce the time it takes for that [fertility] to reach the rhizosphere.”

Johnson was the early developer of Quick Roots, a biological product that actually has an 18-month life on seed as a fungal bacterial component. It’s that kind of technology companies will have to perfect as they bring living tools to market to enhance the rhizosphere.

Monsanto sees the value of biobased solutions, creating the BioAg Alliance with Novozymes, which Johnson says will allow for greater field-level testing of this technology. And Monsanto is also looking toward the seed treatment approach as the key application method for these tools.

The future of crop production will be changing. “You’ll be looking at a systems-based approach,” says Brad Griffith, vice president, global commercial microbials, Monsanto, who is working with the BioAg Alliance. “These microbes are naturally sourced products, so we’ve had to learn how to ferment them, multiply them, and how to coat seed effectively without adversely affecting plantability.”

Pushing the plant

Biological products can also work on the plant itself (as can traditional chemistry — see story at right) to boost a kind of “immune response.”

Marrone Bio Innovations has Regalia Rx, for example, that provides induced systemic resistance in the plant, which allows it to fend off disease. And it brings a different mode of action to the disease control mix for farmers seeking ways to avoid issues with resistance. It’s another example of how biobased products could turn up the heat against pests in the future.

The traditional chemistry companies entering the bioproduct market are bringing proven product discovery technologies to the table as well. The high-throughput systems these companies use can speed the process of finding new active biological products for control of a range of issues.

The move to biological approaches — with either biobased application products or active ingredients that incite a bioresponse in the crop itself — is a growing trend. In a high-yield world where raising production remains a paramount goal, new technologies here offer promise. 

Traditional chemistry, bio result?

The move toward research in biological products for a range of uses — from plant yield enhancement to pest control to disease prevention — is already showing benefits in the market. Yet there is “traditional chemistry” on the market that works on the plant, or the rhizosphere, as well. The key is that science is turning in the direction of tools that help the plant in addition to molecules that kill weeds or insect pests.

This change in direction is necessitated by the lack of new modes of action in traditional chemistry, and the potential available for biological approaches given the wide range of spores, bacteria and other beneficial organisms out there.

However, there are traditional chemistry systems that work on the plant as well, creating ways to beat disease while having a low impact on the environment. Several years ago, Syngenta launched Actigard, a product that pushes the plant’s own resistance into high gear to battle certain diseases.

All plants have some form of protection, and Actigard, when applied, simply turns on that protection. The process is called systemic acquired resistance, or SAR, and it is an area of continued research as part of the move to work on ways to help the plant protect built-in yield potential.

Differentiating between the SAR from Actigard and the induced systemic resistance from a product like Regalia Rx gets into the biochemistry of the plant itself. This will be a growing area of interest as scientists get better at understanding plant processes.

At Stoller USA, the traditional chemistry the company uses has been shown to ignite specific plant genes, helping boost yields. “The plant experiences a lot of stresses,” says Jeff Morgan, Stoller USA. “We’re able to produce a genetic response that tells the plant to continue its normal processes, to do this, or do that, in season.”

Morgan is talking about Bio-Forge, a popular product among yield contest winners year in and year out. The product is sprayed on — usually once per season,  but the flexibility allows for low-rate multiple application — and helps offset plant stress and reduce yield loss. “Our data show that we’re telling the plant to signal a reduction in ethylene,” he says.

Ethylene is the gas produced when a stressed plant starts to senesce, or die off. Bio-Forge is another example of a product that works on the plant, not the pest, to boost yield and enhance performance.

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