Learn trait names, who created them and what they do
Biotechnology has changed the landscape of agriculture. Seemingly overnight, farmers could reduce the number of field operations and, consequently, farm more acres with less investment in equipment and labor. The introduction of Bt and herbicide-tolerant traits provides better control of insect and weeds.
“Before biotechnology, we used to plow in the fall, disk and cultivate at least once. We left the soil exposed for the winter and wide open for erosion,” says Mike Rosenbohm, a Graham, Mo., farmer. “Then, [in spring] we would work the ground once or twice, plant, many times replant because of cutworm, cultivate and when you add spraying, respraying and harvesting, it could be 10 times in each field.”
After nearly four decades of farming, Rosenbohm has had a front row seat to witness the difference advancing technology has made on his farm. For him, traits have made farming more efficient so he and his family could expand their operation.
It might be more efficient, but some farmers are left with questions and expect more information about where traits originate.
In this story, we’ll guide you through how traits come to market, what traits are currently offered, who owns them and trait licensing programs.
Since many trait stacks use shared traits through licensing or collaboration, it is possible to plant the same trait over multiple acres just from a different bag. Learn where there is overlap within companies and strategize your purchases and placements.
Traits don’t evolve in a few months, or even a year for that matter. “It’s a very long and rigorous process. It takes a minimum of 10 years and over $100 million,” says Tom Eickhoff, Monsanto agronomy systems lead.
It all starts with anticipating a need a decade into the future, essentially planning for a problem that doesn’t exist or isn’t a big issue yet. How can a trait help fill that need and how can it be effectively inserted into a plant?
After the initial idea, it’s up to scientists to do the heavy lifting to bring the idea to reality. In corn, this is the “discovery” phase. Scientists conduct numerous tests to find the right gene and right dose to target the problem.
“[After they identify the technology,] they test proof of concept—they put the gene into a model plant, something you can transform easily, to see if it works,” says Frank A. Shotkoski, director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) II. “This takes three to four years.”
Use of biotech traits has helped Missouri farmer Mike Rosenbohm increase efficiency, expand his operation and increase production.
They isolate cultures or microbes and screen those potential candidates to see if they are good to transform into plants. Next, they grow the initial genetic transformation to build an “event”—what makes the plant do what it is supposed to do. The event uses promoters, so it can be transferred into different plants, says Tim Zurliene, Bayer global head of trait licensing.
“The next step is deregulation, which is more challenging,” Zurliene explains.
Deregulation is when the product is proven safe for commercial sale and production in the U.S. and abroad. During the deregulation process, there’s red tape and hoops to work through. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA require rigorous testing to prove events are safe for humans and the environment. This process takes seven years on average, but in the current climate, it might take longer. China and Europe are some of the bigger challenges.
One of the final—and especially important—steps is breeding and field testing. University and internal tests determine product efficacy. It takes five to seven years of breeding and testing before products are in the hands of farmers. This step is performed at the same time as deregulation to advance to market as quickly as possible.
Finally, the product is commercialized and ready for the farm.
In the next five years, we can expect to see what researchers have been working on for the past decade. There are several products in the deregulation and breeding process that should make it to market in the next five years.
Only a handful of companies invest the time and money to create traits. In corn and soybeans, Syngenta, Monsanto Company, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer CropScience and DuPont Pioneer are the sole trait creators. When you add non-corn and soybean traits to the mix, BASF, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer join the game. In corn and soybeans, you have access to the same traits through multiple companies thanks to collaboration and licensing. This makes trait stacks less exclusive and maximizes product potential through shared technology.
“Our first SmartStax collaboration [with Monsanto] was in 2009,” says Damon Palmer, Dow AgroSciences U.S. seeds marketing director.
Trait stacks can boost pest protection, but that doesn’t mean you can skip scouting your fields. Some areas might not need certain insect protection because the pressure is minimal.
“You want to match your field needs with the product to manage pressure and yield,” says Chuck Lee, Syngenta head of corn seeds product marketing. “For example, if I rotate I might not need rootworm traits. But, if I live in Illinois and farm corn-on-corn, I want high protection with multiple modes of action to decrease risk of resistance.”
Field-specific prescriptions might mean the difference between profit and loss.
“It’s easy to just cut inputs,” Palmer says. “When you look at ROI, make sure you’re spending as much time on the R [return] as the I [investment].”
It is important to consider the field’s history when deciding on trait stacks. You can spend more where you need to and less where the risk is lower to pocket the greatest return possible.
“The key thing is choice in the marketplace. Many want to choose their level of protection and genetics,” says Monsanto’s Eickhoff.
Hybrids are often offered with a stair step level of protection. This lets you keep the genetics you want in the trait stack best matched to your field.
It is up to you to scout your fields and keep an accurate history of past problems to know what level of trait protection you need. There are some general rules you can follow when considering levels of protection:
Above-ground trait packages are for areas without rootworm pressure.
- If you rotate your crops every year or are in an area with little rootworm activity, you might be able to skip having a below-ground rootworm trait in your package.
- There are multiple options for above-ground protection. Read labels or talk with your seed provider to determine if the above-ground insect pressure is high enough to consider multiple modes of action with traits.
Stacked traits with both rootworm and above-ground pest control should be used in situations with high pest pressure or high yield potential.
- Corn-on-corn fields might need a trait package with extra protection. Since you don’t rotate to soybeans or another non-grass crop, pests can build up without any die-off years. This can make controlling insects such as rootworm more difficult.
- Corn-on-corn is not the only time stacked traits are used. Consider insect pressures in your area.
“Match product to the field and avoid over- or underspending,” says Syngenta’s Lee.
Adding internal protection with traits gives some farmers piece of mind and less insect damage.
When should you consider multiple herbicide stacks?
- “At Bayer, we recommend starting with a strong pre-herbicide with residual and following up with a post. We will give post options,” Zurliene says. “Choose either herbicide [Liberty or Roundup] in one seed.”
- Weed resistance is top of mind for many farmers, and some chemistry is not as effective as it once was against stubborn weeds. There are trait options with multiple modes of action to make sure at least one is effective against weeds. Multiple herbicide stacks give you the option to rotate chemicals year over year to help decrease the spread of resistance.
Trait stacks are often a combination of the traits from multiple companies. They are created through collaboration and licensing. It allows trait companies to use traits from other creators and small companies to use trait technology without spending billions of dollars.
“We begin with customer needs in mind. Ultimately, if the customer wins, we win,” says Drew Porter, Pioneer director of product marketing, U.S. and Canada. “That’s our ultimate goal [when licensing traits].”
If you like your hometown seed dealer, you can use him or her without sacrificing crop protection. When licensing, trait producers allow these companies to use their traits for a fee. Upon an agreement, the buying company is given foundation seed they can either cross to make hybrids or backcross to integrate into pre-existing genetic lines. In simple terms, they either use seed from the company they buy from and make new hybrids with the traits or, if they have a larger budget, take the trait and backcross it into their own hybrids.
“Licensing is a big benefit to farmers, independent seed companies and us,” Lee explains. “Even if you don’t have a relationship with Syngenta, with licensing, you can still use our traits.”
Licensing is a mutually beneficial plan. The seller gets royalties anytime their traits go in the ground, and the smaller seed company doesn’t have to spend millions on research while still reaping the benefits. Ultimately, farmers get to stay with the seed dealer they are most comfortable.
“Technology is available to farmers in their favorite brands,” Bayer’s Zurliene says. Licensing helps move technology in the marketplace.
Pioneer, in addition to using created or co-created traits, uses licensing programs. “Through testing we see how traits perform and license specific events to build unique trait packages,” Porter says. “Since we create new stacks, we have to get them approved through regulatory bodies, which takes about the same time as creating a trait.”
Biotech drastically influenced farm practices, culture and the marketplace in 1996 by enhancing convenience.
“Years ago, the farm I own used to make 100 bu. to 150 bu. per acre, and we were elated. Now, if it is less than 220 bu. per acre, we’re disappointed,” says ABSP’s Shotkoski.
More than 90% of farmers today use biotechnology compared to only 25% in 2000. Increased protection has allowed some farmers to maximize their genetic potential by scouting to control problems early.
To increase efficiency and help combat common problems in areas where scouting shows additional control is needed, biotech use has increased each year.