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For Monsanto, Climate the pipeline's the thing

Brent Stirton/Getty Images For Monsanto, Climate the pipeline's the thing
After the financial results, technology leaders offer a look at what's coming for the future

Monsanto provided its first-quarter financial report this week with a look at a range of news regarding the market. In addition to that announcement, the company along with The Climate Corporation offered a deeper look at progress on the research pipeline.

Monsanto has long offered a look at its development path for major technologies; Climate took on that approach two years ago. Both offer farmers a chance to see what may be coming for the future. And this week they shared updates on a wide range of tools.

The information update was delivered by Robb Fraley, chief technology officer, Monsanto; and Sam Eathington, chief scientist, Climate. Each offered a look at what's ahead from the company.

Fraley offered his customary optimism for the future. Long the 'biology guy' at Monsanto and instrumental in development of the first Roundup Ready trait more than 20 years ago, he continues his crusade for new biotech traits at the company. "Our research is aimed at improving grower productivity, regardless of where they farm or the agricultural practices they choose to deploy in their operations," he said.

As for those pipeline products, Fraley said this was the fifth year where the company made more than 20 pipeline advancements. "And it's the seventh year where projects advanced across all research and development platforms - breeding, biotechnology, biologicals, crop protection and digital ag," he noted.

Crops and crop protection

In the near term, Fraley explained that Trecept corn is on track for launch in 2018 in certain corn growing areas. This is a third generation above-ground insect control trait for control of corn earworm, and offers protection against fall armyworm, corn borers and black and western bean cutworms.

SmartStax Pro has moved to Phase 4 in the pipeline, which means it's near commercialization. The technology is not in early licensing discussions with seed corn companies and regulatory work continues on getting the trait approved worldwide. SmartStax Pro brings a new approach to corn rootworm control with the use of RNAi - RNA-interference - as the mode of action. This would be the first commercial product to use that technique to disrupt the rootworm life cycle.

Looking farther up the chain, the company is working on more modes of action for insect control in corn - a key issue in the world's No. 1 feed crop. There's a healthy list of corn traits in the Monsanto pipeline.

On the weed control side, Monsanto is moving forward with a trait package that would confer herbicide tolerance to crops for glyphosate, dicamba and glufosinate. This has now been submitted for global regulatory approvals and is nearer to market.

On the herbicide trait issue, Fraley shared that the company's Roundup Ready 2 Xtend product with dicamba tolerance was a success. "Headlines to the contrary this product provided weed control, yield performance and there was outstanding adoption of [the technology]," Fraley said. "This technology provided a 5.7 bushel-per-acre yield advantage compared to the Liberty Link system."

Fraley said that a survey of soybean growers that used the technology showed that 97% reported they were satisfied with the weed control provided. "That's an outstanding number," he said.

And orders for 2018 show that 80% of the demand for branded soybeans contain the new trait package which "bolsters our confidence of reaching 40 million acres with this technology in the third year of launch," he said. "This is a tremendous indication that growers are interested."

Fraley explained that the company will be working with farmers on application education, proper nozzle use and other approaches to make sure that dicamba-containing products are used properly for the 2018 season. "We've received approval from 32 of 34 states to follow the new EPA label for dicamba," Fraley said. "Minnesota will join that list shortly. We've worked hard to ensure that growers have a clear understanding of the label, training, nozzles and tools to use the technology effectively."

The addition of glufosinate tolerance to the trait package offers potential for the next decade. Also in the pipeline - but still a few years out - is a herbicide tolerance trait package that included tolerance to glyphosate, dicamba, glufosinate and the HPPD class of herbicides (such as mesotrione) and "another mode of action" according to the company.

On the cotton side, Monsanto has advanced to Phase 4, the last step before commercialization, its Lygus and Thrips Control technology. "This is an industry first for the control of piercing and sucking insects," he said. "It's at Phase 4 which means it will be commercialized in two to three years."

Also, Bollgard 4 - the fourth generation insect control tech for cotton has entered Phase 2, which will help farmers in the future.

For seed-applied technology, Fraley noted the advancement of Nemastrike technology for nematode control. The tool will be available in 2018, though the company is currently testing the product due to a problem in the seed application phase. Workers were found to get a rash when exposed to the product.

"We had some instances from a manufacturing perspective of skin irritations when people came in contact with the molecule," Fraley said. "In an abundance of caution, we're going to have a slow commercial launch and we've added testing to gather the appropriate information."

He said that there will be a second "ground breakers" trial of the product this spring, and between now and the second quarter the company plans a communication plan for Nemastrike "We're excited about the product and its ability to control nematodes in corn, soybeans and cotton," he said.

The BioAg Alliance Monsanto has with Novozymes is advancing as well. The company will be advancing greater tech in its Acceleron seed treatment with more advanced biologicals, in the next few years, Fraley noted.

A final key area of development for Monsanto is gene editing. Fraley explained that the company has entered into licensing agreements with a range of tech suppliers. He sees this area of plant breeding to hold a lot of promise and sees the tech as having the ability to "drive other gains in productivity and breeding efficiency."

Technology update

Sam Eathington, chief scientist, The Climate Corporation, shared that his division is also on the phased pipeline plan and for this latest first-quarter report noted that there were 17 pipeline advancements into 2018.

The focus for Climate, he explained is "working to solve the yield equation with actionable insights for farmers," he said.

The firm did expand into Eastern Canada and Brazil in 2017, and late in the year did a precommercial launch in Germany, France and Ukraine. The key is data collection for these new geographies to have information to provide those insights to growers.

For Eathington, the yield challenge looms. He points to the national corn yield average of 175 bushels per acre, but top corn yields for the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest topping 500 bushels per acre. "That's a 300-plus bushel yield difference," he said.

Eathington approaches the issue with an equation with yield being a function of genetics, environment and farming practices plus error - or f(g,e,p)+E - the key is to work on all parts of that equation to help farmers maximize yield potential.

A focus for Climate is the use of machine learning to enhance the entire product line. With machine learning complex computer programs are fed greater levels of data for improved decision making. The company is amassing a large amount of data that can be applied in these systems for better decision making.

Eathington pointed to the company's fertility scripting tool that allows better management of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. "By applying the appropriate amount across fields - and we have tools to start addressing fields - we enable farmers to more efficiently manage fertility," he said.

One area where the company continues to advance is the use of hybrid and variety information - using a vast germplasm library at Monsanto - to develop algorithms to help determine the best plant density to maximize performance. The key is knowing how specific hybrids or varieties respond to planting density, and Climate is pulling that information together for use on the farm through the Climate Field View tool.

A final tool, still in development with no defined launch date, did capture a lot of interest during a media call. Climate is closer to using artificial intelligence and machine learning for in-field scouting and disease identification.

Eathington explained that the company used tech and programming that's already in use for facial recognition (the iPhone X can be opened with your face), to recognize a range of disease features. "We have an image base with 20 to 30 million parameters showing when a pathogen is present," he said.

With that information a farmer would snap a picture of a sick plant leaf and the system would reach into that database and then identify the disease. Do you have Northern Corn Leaf Blight or Goss's Wilt - treatment of one is possible, for the other fungicides do no good. "This is still in the research phase and we're adding images al the time," Eathington said.

Launch timing of this program has not been announced. Eathington noted that it may be a standalone product from Climate or included in a suite of applications. Either way Cliamte is advancing tech on the farm.

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