Diversity helps spread risk. Are you as diverse as you think?
When you glance across your corn and soybean fields, the marker of a good crop is uniformity. Row after row, each plant looks the same as its neighbor, containing the same DNA, resistances and baseline yield potential.
Uniform looks are great but identical genetics could set you up for failure.
“Many farmers believe that buying seed from different seed companies means they’re diversifying their genetics—this might not be the case,” says Lewis Rone, a southeast Missouri farmer. “I don’t want to put all my eggs in one genetic basket.”
Breeding, licensing, seed laws and your seed-buying habits all come into play when considering genetic diversity.
Learn about the importance of genetic diversity, how companies and researchers preserve it, how seed laws can help protect you and how you can protect yourself from planting the same genetics over and over.
One risk associated with planting the same genetics is building resistance. For example, there is only one genetic line with resistance to soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and it’s found in multiple varieties planted across the U.S. Just like weeds can build resistance, so can pathogens. Some formerly resistant varieties are now susceptible to SCN.
Planting the same genetics can also cost dollars. If you can buy the same genetics in different seed bags, it’s your right to know of overlap and shop around for the best price.
Current breeding programs aim to protect genetic diversity, but do limited genetic options make it impossible? Whether you know it or not, the issue of genetic diversity comes up every time you buy seed. If it didn’t matter, you would plant every acre to the newest blockbuster hybrid or variety. Seed companies are evolving their breeding programs to keep up.
“There’s a big difference in genetic diversity that’s useful for farmers and genetic diversity for diversity’s sake,” says Joe Byrum, Syngenta head of soybean seeds product development. In other words, Byrum says, it’s easy to cross-in diverse genetics, but if you drop corn yield potential from 250 bu. per acre to 100 bu. per acre, it’s not useful—the same for soybeans.
It’s important the genetic pools breeders use to create new genetic lines are not stagnant, a fear some in academia express. “The big issue with diversity is if you started with the same population [as everyone else], and even have two different looking plants, how different are they really?” asks Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist.
Rone is concerned about whether the pool from which commercial breeders pull is shrinking, too. “The problem is commercial companies are breeding across the same genetics,” he says.
He’s alarmed about soybean genetics specifically, citing the genes responsible for SCN resistance because 90% come from one source. Seeing the resistance that has developed from that line, he wonders what other genes could be overused if new genes aren’t introduced. “Are we building resistance if that’s the only thing we have?” he says.
Seed company breeders have to carefully wade into the genetic pools available to them. Adding each new corn or soybean cross back into the pool enhances genetic diversity, Byrum says. Breeders should continually add to supply to keep gene pools active and growing, he adds.
Breeders can use genes from their company, from agreements with other companies and from public resources, such as seed gene banks. Crossing genetics from different sources can help breeders gain desirable traits and increase diversity.
“You have to look at as many genetic combinations as you can,” says David Thompson, national marketing and sales director at Stine Seed Company, an Iowa-based genetic licensing and retail seed seller.
Stine tests up to 1 million soybean varieties each year, nearly 60,000 inbred corn lines and 25,000 hybrid corn lines, Thompson says. They keep about 1% of all products tested for retail sale or for genetic licensing.
It takes about seven to eight years, sometimes more depending on the company, to get a new product from the initial cross, through testing and into a bag you can buy. The process works at light-speed compared to the 1970s, when it took almost 20 years.
Some companies speed up the process through a filtering system. If new crosses don’t meet minimum yield, disease resistance or other characteristics the company requires, those crosses can be abandoned.
The nature of agriculture means it still takes several years to test products. Companies assess potential products over a variety of geographies and weather conditions to see how they perform. Also, because many breeding programs use conventional (non-GMO) lines they need to backcross desired biotech traits into new hybrids or varieties. Technology has helped speed up the whole process.
“One of the cool things everyone talks about is data,” says Chris Souder, Monsanto product systems development lead. “It has really changed the scale at which we can develop hybrids and varieties.” Data allows Monsanto and other companies to track each line in their breeding program and pull the 100-or-so winning products from each crop annually.
Genetic licensing means the company you’re buying from might not have created the product.
When companies create 100 or more genetic lines yearly, they don’t need to use each new cross in their lineup, so they take advantage of genetic licensing to increase acres and earn royalties.
Genetic diversity is critical in Missouri farmer Lewis Rone’s decision making.
“We represent companies who breed and develop lines,” says Gary Smelser, president of MBS Genetics, which works with seed companies to license genetics across a variety of geographies and seed company customers. “A lot of large companies do their own breeding, but some companies can’t come up with the product they need for every scenario.”
That’s where companies such as MBS Genetics come in. They work on both sides of the fence—helping breeders distribute genetic lines across a larger number of acres and seed companies find a product with specific features that fits their needs.
Depending on the crop and company from which the material originates, there are multiple ways in which a product can be licensed.
When a company buys a genetic line, it can be used multiple ways. For example, corn and soybeans can be sold as ready-to-use hybrids/varieties or as a parent to be incorporated into a company’s breeding program.
“We started [licensing genetics] in 2004 with a basic principle of open architecture,” says Ron Wulfkuhle, head of Greenleaf Genetics, the licensing arm of Syngenta. The idea, he says, is Syngenta encourages seed company customers to use licensed inbreds to create hybrids and supports looking outside Syngenta for the other half of a cross to add genetic diversity and lower the risk of overlapping genetics.
Syngenta currently sells corn genetics to about 150 companies that subsequently produce more than 750 unique hybrid crosses annually, Wulfkuhle says. The company’s wheat genetics are used by 500 companies and soybean genetics by 50 companies.
Monsanto licenses genetics to 150 companies but declined to disclose what percent is dedicated to corn, soybeans or other crops. Monsanto recently entered an agreement with Remington Holding Company LLC in which Monsanto will sell their sorghum genetic assets to be licensed by Remington.
Stine and MGI also license genetics to a number of companies, but due to confidentiality agreements declined to say how many. Dow declined to comment on its genetic licensing program, and Thurston Genetics did not respond to an interview request from Farm Journal about licensing.
Hundreds of genetic lines are available in many crops, but licensing companies admit there is genetic overlap.
“There are cases where a variety does really well and can show up in more than one bag,” explains Stine’s Thompson. “We have some overlap and some unique. Some companies want exclusivity.”
Companies claim there are positives to selling the same genetic lines through multiple entities.
“There is some overlap that helps get certain products out to trade more quickly,” Smelser explains. “If we only sell a genetic line to one company it’s not out as fast as if we sell it to 50 companies.”
Syngenta provides variety numbers of genetic crosses they know to be desirable. “Customers [seed companies] can then use their own brand name,” Wulfkuhle says. Variety numbers are required on every seed bag sold in the U.S., with the exception of states permitted to list “variety not stated.” However, it can be difficult to differentiate seed varieties even with variety numbers listed on seed labels.
There lies many farmers’ concern: the same genetics in a different bag.
Justin Kennedy, a corn and soybean farmer who lives near Rochester, Minn., says it’s tough to know how to safely diversify. “Having previously sold seed, I know buying from different companies doesn’t mean you’re getting different seed,” he says.
While companies that license genetics know it happens, they can’t pinpoint just how often the same seed is sold in two different bags.
Understand seed laws to protect yourself from genetic overlap.
When you look at the history of U.S. seed laws, they aim to protect farmers’ income and risk.
Corn and soybean farmer Justin Kennedy knows it’s important to spread risk. He works closely with sales representatives to ensure genetic diversity on his farm.
In the 1800s, when seed laws were created, seed merchants were commonly fly-by-night companies with no way for farmers to hold them accountable. Merchants could sell dead seed, the wrong seed or even inert material to farmers without recourse. According to Ernest Allen, director of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Services’ (AMS) seed regulatory and testing division, the Federal Seed Act was created to provide market stability and the laws in place today haven’t changed much since the 1930s.
If you’re mindful of genetic diversity, pay attention to seed labels. For vegetable seed, “variety is required to be listed by law,” Allen says. “That’s what you should be looking for when you buy seed.”
It’s not as easy as you might think to find variety names or numbers on seed containers and labels, however. “If you’re looking at big print it’s probably the brand name,” Allen says.
Learn the Lingo
Inbred: one parent that is crossed with another parent to create a new hybrid or variety
Hybrid: the result of crossing two inbred lines to isolate desirable characteristics
Variety name: a legally assigned name given by the originator or discoverer of a new variety, listed on every seed label
Brand name: associated with a specific company, often used for marketing, not required on a seed label
Backcrossing: the processes in which biotech traits are crossed into specific genetic lines
Genetic overlap: cases in which the same genetic line can be sold by two different companies
Learn the difference between variety name, brand name and other key terms to the right. Seed companies are required to designate the brand name as “brand” on the label, according to Roger Burton, regulatory supervisor at AMS.
Take the time to search for variety name when selecting seed for next year. “When I talk to growers, they want to spread risk,” Burton says. “The only way you can do that is with the variety name.”
Because many companies license genetics from others, and there’s overlap, knowing variety numbers can be key to diversifying your acres. It seems simple, but because preordering is common in seed buying it’s uncommon to see seed labels prior to purchase. You
might not be able to check variety numbers until the seed is already sitting in your shed.
“There’s no methodology to tell you exactly what you’re getting unless the seed label is in hand,” Burton says.
It’s going to take some digging, asking lots of questions and working with seed advisers you trust to know what you’re getting ahead of delivery, Allen adds.
“I put a lot of faith in my two seed reps,” says Minnesota farmer Kennedy. He’s learned not to be shy about asking questions about his product needs. In specific maturity groups, he says there might only be a few options, making it even harder to maintain genetic diversity when he wants certain traits or disease resistances.
“Always look at the variety,” Allen says. “It gives you the power to compare prices.”
Learn to identify genetic overlap before you sign on the dotted line for seed.
Aside from learning the variety name of each product you’re considering, there are other ways to protect your farm’s diversity.
“Genetic diversity seems to be easily understood but difficult to put in practice,” says agronomist Nafziger. “It makes us uncomfortable to think we might be planting the same hybrid twice because of different bags.”
One of the first steps to take is to ask your seed rep for variety numbers while shopping. Note, however, they might not have access to that information until it’s in their shed just like you. If that’s the case, there are other clues you can use to tell if a hybrid or variety is the same, or closely related.
“Check product descriptions,” in seed guides, Thompson says. “They may not be the same—maybe sister lines. It could certainly be cause to look again to see if I have genetic diversity across my seed portfolio.”
Every seed sales rep who knocks on your door this year will be more than happy to leave their seed guide in your hands. That’s a key you can use to solve the genetics puzzle.
Across the top of each page in your seed guides, look at plant color, height, maturity, disease resistance and other product characteristics. If from one seed guide to another you’re looking at two hybrids or varieties with identical descriptions, be cautious about planting both across all acres. They could be identical products or, at least, closely related.
Another trick to avoid genetic overlap is to mix relative maturities. You can spread out the harvest window, and products with different maturities might be related but not identical.
One of the most powerful resources you have can be your seed rep. “Find a seedsman or two you trust,” Smelser, of MBS, says. “They won’t sell you the same thing twice.”
Seed representatives should understand where overlap happens in your maturity group. Let them know what characteristics are “must-haves,” and they should be able to help you find an adequate mix of different genetics.
Another tip is to buy all of your seed from one company. An individual company isn’t going to have the same seed in their lineup twice.
Now that you’re more aware of the frequency of overlapping genetics, what do you do?
On his southeast Missouri farm, Rone and his son are more mindful when buying seed. “We look at seed characteristics, but there’s no place to compare them all,” he says. It takes extra work to save seed guides and other documents, but Rone wants to make sure he’s protecting himself.
Minnesota farmer Kennedy works with trusted seed reps. He asks questions and turns to a variety of people for information he can use on his farm.
Look for variety names, compare seed guide descriptions, consider mixing your relative maturities and work closely with trusted seed reps to protect genetic diversity. If you identify genetic overlap between companies, you can potentially use that information to shop for the lowest price on the same genetics and avoid planting the same product over and over.
5 Ways to Keep Genetic Diversity on Your Farm
- Check the variety number on your seed bags. If they match, they’re the same seed.
- Compare product descriptions and characteristics in seed catalogs. If the scores and descriptions match, they could be the same seed or closely related.
- Mix relative maturities. Seeds could be related, but since they’re different maturities they won’t be the same.
- Find a sales representative you trust. He or she will understand where genetic overlap occurs, and a good sales rep won’t sell the same genetics twice on the same farm.
- Buy all of your seed from one company. While it might not be your favorite idea, individual companies won’t have the same seed in their lineup twice.
Want more Seed Guide information? Click here for a full line up of stories from this issue or check out the stories below:
What You Should Know About 'Generic GMOs'
Protecting Our Genetic Future
Empower Your Seed Purchase
Genetic Solution for Soybean SDS?