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Monsanto highlights biotechnology

The Monsanto research and development pipeline was one of several topics at the recent agricultural media briefing held jointly in Scott, Miss., and Leland, Miss.

Monsanto's pipeline is a systematic step-by-step procedure allowing products to go through rigorous design and testing before reaching the market. A host of crops benefit from the pipeline — with cotton, corn, and oilseeds being prime examples.

The process is made up of a number of distinct phases. Mark Oppenhuizen, Monsanto cotton research manager, detailed the phases. Discovery is directed at gene and trait identification, often focusing on grain yield, stress tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and disease resistance.

Discovery is followed by Phase I (proof of concept), Phase II (early product development), Phase III (advanced development), and Phase IV (pre-launch).

The entire process averages eight to 10 years in length. Rigorous tests are constantly under way on projects that will not be on the market for as long as a decade.

As an example, Oppenhuizen detailed progress on lygus. “We're very early in our lygus work (Phase 1). It's something we've been working on for a number of years, but in the last year or two we've seen some exciting results in this area. Something we know every grower wants is a better control for lygus. We hope to be able to provide an in-plant control similar to what we have for Bollgard for lygus.”

The meticulous nature of the pipeline ensures that stringent standards are maintained at each phase.

Complementing the lengthy process, total research and development costs on a single project can be very high. “Each step varies in cost. They get more expensive as we go. A rough estimate is about $5 million down at the beginning and $20 million toward the end. Overall, when we talk about the cost to bring a project to commercialization, it's anywhere from $50 million to $100 million to bring a new trait to the marketplace.”

Another featured topic during the media briefing was Roundup Ready Flex cotton. Roundup Ready Flex technology enables cotton growers to apply Roundup herbicides over-the-top of cotton up to one week before harvest. This allows growers to circumvent the fourth-leaf-stage limitation.

Most Roundup Ready Flex products are stacked with Bollgard II, diminishing and often eliminating the need to spray insecticides for worms.

“We launched Roundup Ready Flex in 2006. It was the largest biotech launch in Monsanto's history. We were on 2 million acres in 2006 — 2 million acres out of 15.3 million acres of total cotton acreage,” said Paul Callaghan, Monsanto cotton traits marketing manager. “USDA is saying cotton is down to 11 million total acres. But with 4 million fewer acres versus 2006, we are on 4 million acres with Roundup Ready Flex. We doubled our Roundup Ready penetration in a year, with 4 million fewer acres.”

What are cotton growers saying about Roundup Ready Flex? Callaghan says market research shows three common reactions. “First is simplicity — this is a really simple system to manage. Second is flexibility — you can manage around weather conditions. Third is timesaving. You can tank-mix with other products when spraying over-the-top. Also, this greatly reduces the need for hooded sprayers.”

Callaghan elaborated further on timesaving and the reduction in labor. “An average 2,000-acre cotton farmer can save up to 130 hours throughout the growing season by simply planting Roundup Ready Flex and utilizing the tools … what got us over the hump on some of those numbers was we incorporated Bollgard II into that as well — because now you're spraying less for worms.”

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