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Seed industry’s future tied to herbicide resistance

I recently spoke to a group representing a good cross-section of the seed industry. I prefaced my remarks by saying I know absolutely nothing about running a seed business, but I believe their lives running seed businesses will get much more interesting and perhaps challenging over the next 10 years.

I have mentioned in several articles that for the foreseeable future we have four weed control bullets left in the chamber — glufosinate in LibertyLink, dicamba in Roundup Ready Extend, 2,4-D in Enlist and the HPPD herbicide trait. All of these weed control technologies go through the seed industry. I told the group that like it or not, their future would be determined by weeds and trying to figure out what the weeds would be doing — where herbicide resistance would be three to five years into the future.

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It is not really a new thing for weed control to be tied to the seed industry. However, for 15 years it was all Roundup Ready, so we really didn’t notice it. Now it will be different and it began with the introduction of LibertyLink and will get even more complex in the future.

I vividly remember — in the early days of the development of Roundup Ready — a discussion I had with some university colleagues from different disciplines. I commented that if they did not incorporate Roundup Ready into their breeding programs and research in other disciplines such as disease management as soon as possible, that their research would be obsolete. One looked over his glasses at me and said, “Ford, farmers will never make variety selection choices based on an herbicide.” My response was, “I believe you are fixing to be run over by a freight train with a big red M on the front.”

I was also told the same thing along about that same time at the Brighton Conference in England in front of about 1,000 folks — none of whom spoke Southern. I gave them the same warning. They were still trying to figure out what I said when the meeting was over, but I do not think it took them too long to figure it out.

As a weed scientist I have always believed that choice of variety was the single most important decision in growing a crop. The variety is going to set the yield potential, and my job as a weed scientist is to help insure that weeds do not take anything away from that potential. However, if you cannot control the weeds, the wheels come off the entire production system.

When Roundup Ready came along, weed control was so far superior to what we had that the wholesale switch was a no-brainer. As quickly as Roundup variety development allowed, the entire seed industry transitioned from conventional varieties to Roundup Ready varieties.

Fast forwarding to 2012, glyphosate resistance has changed everything. Of the four technologies mentioned earlier, each company will present a very compelling argument for their technology being superior. However, the general consensus of the weed scientists I run with is that none of the four will be superior, but all four will be good tools in certain situations.

The bottom line is expecting any of the four new technologies to be what Roundup Ready once was is wishful thinking. As stated in previous articles, I believe how we use these four remaining technologies will determine whether or not we have any herbicide technology left in 10 years.

I do not believe the major companies will be able to come together to support each other’s technology in a diversity program. However, I believe the seed industry can. I have had several calls from seed companies in the past year asking my opinion on which technology will win. My response is you had better diversify just as we are recommending farmers to diversify. I believe trying to out-guess the weeds five years from now will be impossible.

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