Follow the Money: Where are crop protection companies and seed developers spending their R&D?Posted in: Global Ag By Tracy Tjaden March 20 2015
Trend 1: Is Wheat the new Canola?
The seed industry is ramping up its investment in wheat.
“We went through a period a couple of decades ago when hybrid corn was established. There was another period when soybeans started to flourish and then there was a lot of investment in the canola game,” says Jeff Reid, Ottawa-based general manager of SeCan, an association of 730 seed companies across Canada. “It seems like the next frontier is cereals.”
Bayer CropScience is planning to invest 1.5 billion Euros in wheat globally in the next 10 years, says Marcus Weidler, its vice president of seed operations.
“Wheat is one of the last crops when it comes to overall investment, so we believe there is still have lot of opportunity to develop wheat to a really attractive and compelling crop for the grower,” he says. “If you look at global acreages, wheat has been losing a lot, mostly to corn and soybeans which are more profitable. But with attention and investment we believe there is a lot of potential for wheat to regain ground.”
The company broke ground on its new Wheat Breeding Centre south of Saskatoon last September. It is expected to be up and running this summer.
Weidler says the focus will be developing a non-GM hybrid with higher yield potential and more yield stability in stress situations, notably drought, disease, pests and herbicide tolerance.
Bayer is also working on improved traits for its canola and soybean varieties in Canada.
Syngenta is also moving fast on wheat. Darcy Pawlik, the company’s cereal seed lead in North America, says Syngenta has an agreement with the Canadian Wheat Alliance to invest in technology to bring varieties more quickly to market. In the near term, that means a focus on fusarium head blight, wheat midge and rust resistance, as well as improving the crop’s ability to mature earlier to help farmers managing shorter growing seasons.
“We’re now moving toward using the most robust set of genetics and germplasm we can draw from to leverage the large genotype facilities we have and place new genes into the background genetics of Canadian varieties,” says Pawlik. “As we look to the future, and we did the same thing with corn, we look to more complex traits — dozens of different genes working together — you have the ability to go beyond just drought tolerance to water-use efficiency and nitrogen-use efficiency. The tools we now have enable us to work on that.”
Genetically speaking, wheat is one of the most complex crops around.
“The sheer size of the wheat genome is huge, compared to other plants and even the human genome,” says Stephen Yarrow, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada. “But with new techniques and informatics, scientists are now able to sort through it. In 10 to 15 years, we’ll see big developments in new wheat varieties, in terms of resistance to pests, disease and also some of the food quality attributes.”
To that end, Canterra Seeds announced an agreement last fall with large British baker Warburtons on the production and commercialization of a hard red spring wheat variety.
“In Western Canada, our opportunities are going to be greatest in the cereals space — and that is enhanced with adoption of UPOV,” says Hansen. “Whether driven by new genetics or market demand, growers are adapting and adopting where new opportunities prevail.”
Rod Merryweather, CEO of FP Genetics Inc., says wheat is a priority for his company. Two years ago, FP Genetics struck an agreement with the Crop Development Centre to spend $1.5 million over 10 years on research into CPS wheat.
“Primarily the focus is around spring wheat but ultimately the target is the milling market,” says Merryweather. “That’s where 85 percent of the acres occur so that’s where the investment will be.”
FP Genetics is interested in winter wheat as well.
“I believe through better agronomy and management of the crop there is potential for many more acres than we’re seeing today,” says Merryweather.
Trend 2: Moving Beyond GMO
Many companies are saying that the public’s continued wariness around genetic modification has prompted them to move toward other scientific alternatives to develop non-GM varieties.
“Syngenta has learned that using genetic modification has its challenges,” says Pawlik. “It’s a very valuable tool in the proverbial toolbox, but for the staples in the human diet for wheat, for example, it is not accepted. We’re aware of that.”
Instead, he says the company is focusing on advanced breeding technologies. “We understand what’s happening on a gene-by-gene level, how they react to different stressors,” he says. “We understand which genes need to be present and then we select for them. Depending on the permutations and combinations, we end up with the phenotypic effect we’re looking for.”
In wheat, for example, he says the company selects from lines growing all over the world that have proven tolerances or traits suited to Canada.
They bring in those varieties, breed them and select for the genes and traits that are desirable. It’s more time-consuming than genetic modification, where the genetic material is simply transferred directly, rather than through breeding.
When asked why wheat is considered a staple in the human diet while corn or canola is not, Pawlik said, “Wheat is used directly in food products as a primary ingredient, whereas corn might be seen as more of a derivative.”
Trend 3: Integrated Approach
Pawlik also described a trend that has seen the company take more of an integrated approach toward crop protection.
“It means that we don’t see seed as acting independently, we don’t see soil testing as a separate thing either. We look at what’s going on above and below ground,” he explains. “When we test now, we’re not just looking at the field but also all the different agronomic practices, how much of the land is being put on in terms of chemicals, all to figure out the optimal return on investment for a grower using all these things.”
He says this is part of the company’s plan to increase its collaboration with provincial agriculture extension offices, federal ag organizations and Canadian universities.
“When you look to the future it can be a bit daunting, to create products that fit the consumers’ needs and the value chain’s desires,” he says. “Now where we’re going — and we’re able to do this with wheat — is to have high-quality varieties where you’re not just breeding for protein, but also the characteristics needed for baking, for example. And the future takes us into other traits such as shelf life and sustainability factors.”
Wheat isn’t the only crop garnering attention. Cornie Thiessen, Monsanto’s Trait and Licensing Business Lead in Canada, says the key focus for the company is around providing farmers in Western Canada with new cropping choices — primarily, developing varieties of corn and soybeans that will do well in Western Canada.
Its strategy is three-fold. First, it is working to find hybrids through plant breeding that will mature earlier. It’s developed varieties of soybeans that can mature with under 2,300 heat units, and a similar effort is underway for corn.
In canola, Monsanto’s focus is finding new sources of disease resistance (aimed at blackleg, clubroot and sclerotinia). “We feel pretty confident now that we have resistant sources in our pipeline that will address these concerns,” says Thiessen.
Second, it is working on trait development to help farmers manage rotations, such as a new soybean variety it expects to launch this fall that includes dicamba tolerance.
Third, Thiessen says Monsanto is working with industry to make sure these new products are accompanied by the right agronomic recommendations and practices.
“Selling the product isn’t enough,” he says. “If it’s not used right, the benefits of that product can quickly erode. We’ve seen that in areas with certain herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.”
To this end, he says the company has established some of its own technology development research farms and also works with universities, industry groups such as the Canola Council of Canada and conducts its own workshops for growers.
“More and more we’re seeing prescriptions come with products,” he adds. “That’s why we’ve invested in adding quite a few agronomists; it’s also why we like to work closely with retails.”
Trend 4: Where Chemistry Meets Biology
“The lines between biotech and chemistry are becoming blurred,” says Pierre Petelle, vice president of chemistry with CropLife Canada. “We’ve seen some big acquisitions in this area so clearly there’s some potential there. Part of it is about transferring the learnings both ways — rather than having stark lines between bio-pesticides and organic, some companies see where there could be more cooperation, such as using bio-pesticides in a conventional rotation.”
Yarrow explains further: “You are not genetically modifying the seed — the desired effect is only temporary. You spray the weeds that are resistant and then spray with Round-Up. I know of at least two companies looking at this now.”
Petelle points to BASF’s US$1.02-billion acquisition of Becker Underwood, which specialized in biological seed treatments in 2012.
According to Syngenta’s Pawlik, the company already has a line of ‘plant growth regulators’ in the U.S., which are hormone-based sprays that temporarily turn off certain genes to convince the plant to grow in its stems rather than height, to reduce lodging.
Monsanto’s Thiessen says the whole area of microbials is becoming a bigger focus for the company. “It’s about identifying those naturally occurring microbes in the soil that can be used as seed treatments,” he says. “It’s like how probiotics are used to enhance human health.”
Currently the company sells inoculants that help pulse crops and soybeans fix their own nitrogen, and is working on others that help plants resist disease and insects.
This area has become more attractive in light of scientific advancements into understanding soil’s make-up.
“Enough innovations happened for companies to be able to take this seriously as a growth platform,” says Thiessen. “There are also some benefits in terms of consumer acceptance in this area, but the main driver is the science.”
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