Growers have seen innovations in seed products that only a few years ago seemed improbable or even impossible. And the next decade promises to be filled with new products designed to increase efficiency and yield. What will be the next big thing? Here is what the experts say you can expect as seed companies work to bring their latest innovations to market.
The tools available to today’s plant breeders are unprecedented in their power. Today, scientists can “mark” a certain gene within a plant’s genome and trace it throughout the plant’s life cycle. Breeders can then determine, before the plant is even in the ground, whether that seed and its progeny will carry (or will not carry) a certain trait.
Marker-assisted breeding allows breeders to study more gene sequences at a much faster pace, allowing them to significantly shrink the time-line between initial discovery and commercial introduction. It also has allowed them to study more genes in the gene pool, expanding the possibility of bringing genes from years ago into today’s elite products.
“The use of markers has hit at every level of product development,” says David Fischhoff, technology strategy and development strategy lead for Monsanto. “Even with the absence of biotech traits, breeders have been able to increase yields year on year using these tools.”
Today, breeders can gather information using just a portion of the seed’s coat. “DNA today is analyzed in close to real time,” Fischhoff says. “We can take a chip off the seed, analyze the DNA, and let the breeder know which seeds have the markers, and the traits, they want. This increases the efficiency 10-fold or more.”
It essentially has allowed plant breeders to study hundreds of millions of data points, even before planting a single seed. “What we do is correlate markers with the attributes that are important to the customer,” says John Bedbrook, vice president of agricultural technology at DuPont. “Markers play an important role in our ability to integrate traits and enhance our products. Marker technology touches every thing we do.”
Another important technology in corn is the ability of plant breeders to create a single genetically pure line in a single step. “This process alone allows us to dramatically increase the number of inbred lines we can study,” Bedbrook says.
“And it’s not just current and future products,” Bedbrook continues. “These modern genetic tools allow us to look at past hybrids or varieties. We combine present genetic information with breeder’s notes to study past products and see if specific genomics will benefit current products. It is a tremendous asset that we employ in our breeding process.”
Corn and soybean products that are more efficient in using available water resources will soon be available to producers. Pioneer is set to launch its Drought 1 tolerant corn in the western Corn Belt sometime this year, and other companies have drought-tolerant traits in their development pipelines.
“We have been studying drought tolerance since the 1950s,” says Jeff Schussler, senior research manager at Pioneer. “Our Drought 1 product uses native genes that we have identified that will help provide yield stability in areas with limited water supplies.”
The next round of drought products, according to Schussler, will include a transgenic approach combined with native genes.
In July, Syngenta unveiled water optimization technology called Agrisure Artesian. A limited quantity of hybrids with this technology will be available for 2011 planting through the company’s Garst, Golden Harvest and NK product brands.
“The water optimization technology enables corn plants to use available moisture more efficiently, resulting in higher yields on drought-stressed acres including dryland and limited-irrigation farms in the western Corn Belt,” says Tracy Mader, head of product marketing for Syngenta Seeds. “Growers on rain-fed acres in the central and eastern Corn Belt likewise can use the technology to help stabilize yields in years of inconsistent rainfall or in fields with variable soil types and moisture-holding capacity.”
Syngenta also is developing a water-optimized hybrid using a genetically modified trait and anticipates product launch after 2015, pending regulatory and key import market approval.
A trait that allows a corn plant to better utilize available nitrogen is in various stages of the production pipeline within several seed companies. Once unveiled, it could shake up the market. “Fertilizer is the number-one expense for corn producers, and nitrogen ranks right up there,” says Gary Schnitkey, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois. “So anything that can increase efficiency is something that all farmers would want.”
Traits that would allow a corn or soybean plant to make better use of other available inputs are also not far off.
Perhaps no single trait has had as much of an impact as the herbicide-tolerant trait. Today more than 90% of soybeans and close to 70% of corn is planted using some sort of herbicide-tolerant trait.
Growers can expect more and expanded offerings. Monsanto recently completed a regulatory submission to the USDA for dicamba-tolerant soybeans, and Dow AgroSciences expects to introduce its herbicide-tolerant trait technology — which will provide tolerance to broadleaf and grass herbicides, including 2,4-D and “fop” herbicides — in the next couple of years.
“Stacking will be the norm in this market going forward,” Fischhoff says. “A single herbicide-tolerant trait won’t disappear, but a more common configuration will be several herbicide-tolerant traits stacked.”
Schnitkey says additional herbicide-tolerant traits will allow producers to diversify their weed control options. “I would expect that as these newer products are introduced, we may see glyphosate-tolerant traits hitting a plateau,” he says. “It is critical from a weed control standpoint to have more than glyphosate. Different means of weed control will help things considerably.”
According to the USDA, the percentage of corn acreage planted to Bt corn has grown from about 8% in 1997 to 63% in 2010. This trait’s popularity has led to the stacking of multiple traits in a single product, allowing for the control of a host of insects throughout the growing cycle.
“We will continue to see advances in this area with new modes of action,” says Jonathan Bryant, vice president at BASF Plant Science. “I see a continual evolution of products to make sure that we keep the trait foundation fresh.”
One of the more recent examples of a next-generation, insect-protection product is Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera trait in corn. The Viptera trait is a new mode of action that controls lepidopteran corn pests like black cutworm, corn earworm and fall armyworm.
SmartStax, the stacked trait combination developed by a collaboration between Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, is a stack of eight different herbicide-tolerant and insect-protection traits in a single product. It is designed to offer multiple modes of action in one product, working together to provide aboveground and belowground insect protection.
Several companies are developing refuge-in-a-bag products that will allow a reduced refuge or no refuge when planting traited seed. For example, in Pioneer’s Optimum AcreMax 1 (OAM1), the corn rootworm refuge is integrated in the bag and is planted throughout the field. However, a refuge in a different field is still required for European corn borer. The EPA currently is evaluating OAM1.
Companies continue to search for new modes of action, and even new sources of toxins. “We will need different kinds of solutions for insect-resistant traits,” Bedbrook says. “And one sure way of getting new modes of action is to go with a completely different source. Work in this area has been very promising.”