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Monsanto highlights research pipeline for canola, soybeans

Xtend soybeans with added glufosinate tolerance isn’t far off, but glyphosate- and dicamba-tolerant canola is still five or six years out

Dicamba-tolerant canola is coming and so is a triple-threat soybean, resistant to glyphosate, dicamba and glufosinate.

That’s just some of what’s in Monsanto’s crop and weed-control pipeline, Robb Fraley, the seed and pesticide giant’s executive vice-president and chief technology officer told reporters during a conference call Jan. 4.

Fraley sees great things coming from new gene editing techniques, innovations from Monsanto’s precision farming platform, The Climate Corporation, and Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto, a US$66-billion deal, yet to be approved by the European Union.

Soybeans first

Triple-stacked soybeans will hit fields sooner than dicamba-tolerant canola, Fraley said.

“Depending on the final regulatory approvals we should launch in the next two to three years,” he said about the new soybeans resistant to three herbicides — glyphosate, dicamba and glufosinate. “We are now going through the advanced regulatory approval. Testing has been very strong for the product in terms of weed control and developing the herbicide formulation and we’re in the final phases of global regulatory approval and starting seed production.”

The soybeans, referred to as “HT3” (herbicide tolerant), was approved by Canada in November 2016, Monsanto Canada spokeswoman Trish Jordan said in an email Jan. 5.

“I expect we are still waiting on regulatory approvals in other key markets,” she wrote.

Dicamba-tolerant canola won’t be available in Canada for “roughly five or six years,” Fraley said. “But we’re moving it forward in the pipeline. It’s going through some of the initial agronomic testing.

“I think it’s a key technology and one that will be important for canola production in Canada.”

Resistance battle

Making crops resistant to several herbicides with different modes of action for killing weeds is critical in the battle against herbicide-resistant weeds, he added.

“We are also developing new formulations of dicamba… to bring new combinations of new modes of action so that farmers have more enduring tools for weed control,” Fraley said. “We see the dicamba trait being a very strong partner trait with these other technologies for years to come.”

Fraley said the company’s ultimate goal is to ensure farmers have two or three different modes of action in all their crops, enabling them to continue controlling grassy and broadleaf weeds for the future.

“I think that lets them get ahead of some of the challenges that they’ve seen historically with weed resistance,” Fraley said.

Xtend soybeans, which are tolerant to the herbicides glyphosate and dicamba, were a big success in the United States in 2017, Fraley said.

Monsanto trials showed Xtend soybeans yielded 5.7 bushels an acre more than Liberty Link soybeans, he said.

Fraley expects Xtend plantings to double to 40 million acres in the U.S. this year.

Despite headlines to the contrary, the weed control, the yield performance and the adoption of the technology has been outstanding,” he said.

News reports estimated 3.1 million acres of U.S. soybeans were damaged by dicamba last year, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adjust dicamba’s label in an effort to reduce drift.

“We’ve worked hard to ensure that growers have a clear understanding of the label,” Fraley said.

There were only a few drift complaints from dicamba used on Xtend soybeans in Manitoba last year, Manitoba Agriculture said.

Canadian challenges

Meanwhile, Monsanto continues to work on Chinese regulators to approve TruFlex canola. Canadian regulators approved it in 2012. TruFlex withstands higher doses of glyphosate for better weed control and more application flexibility.

“That technology, in my mind, should’ve been in the Canadian market three or four years ago,” Fraley said.

Monsanto is also making headway developing earlier-maturing varieties of corn and soybeans for Western Canada, Fraley said.

“We’re seeing corn yields of 120 to 150 bushels per acre,” he said. “We’re seeing soybean varieties literally perform at 40 to 50 bushels (an acre), which I think, provides an exciting new option for Canadian farmers.”

New, precise, gene editing techniques can increase crop yields and research efficiency, Fraley said.

CRISPR is one that has made headlines, but new editing tools are being developed almost weekly, he said. Monsanto has been making deals with some of the developers, including the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., to get access to them.

“We think the CRISPR Cpf1 technology has a number of benefits and advantages,” he said. “We’ve been using these tools across a broad breeding program and used it to develop a number of new products that can range from disease-resistant traits to traits that can improve the nutritional or quality aspects of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Gene edited plants should go through the regulatory process faster than those with foreign genes, but they’re still going to require six or seven years of plant breeding and seed production, Fraley said.

“I think those first-generation products really will represent a combination of breeding traits, biotech traits, gene edited traits, because that’s what’s going to give farmers the benefits and features that are important in their operation,” he said.

Going digital

Monsanto’s Climate Corporation is taking a growing volume of digital data and turning it into information farmers can use to increase yields more sustainably, said its chief science officer Sam Eathington.

Climate expects to have 50 million paid acres this year. About a million of those are in Ontario. Climate has been working on adapting its FieldView platform for wheat and canola in Western Canada.

The company is also making progress with a new smartphone-based corn disease diagnosis app.

“You can get a real-time diagnosis right there in the field and go ahead and decide what action you want to take,” Eathington said.

The current prototype is 90 per cent accurate and getting better, he added.

Fraley said he is excited about the prospect of Bayer and Monsanto teaming up.

“I see that as allowing our two companies to really accelerate the pace of innovation through our complementary skills and a shared vision for agriculture,” he said. “Our R&D team is excited and energized by some of the new areas of scientific advancement that we think we’ll be able to unlock by combining with Bayer. That’s going to allow us to bring new and more products to farmers and do it faster.”


Monsanto earnings disappoint

Robb Fraley’s comments came shortly after Monsanto announced weaker- than-expected quarterly earnings.

Low crop prices hurt farmers’ incomes, reducing sales of Monsanto seeds and pesticides, the firm said.

In the fiscal first quarter ended Nov. 30, net profit attributable to Monsanto rose to US$169 million, or 38 U.S. cents per share, from US$29 million, or seven U.S. cents per share, a year earlier. Analysts had expected earnings of 42 U.S. cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Monsanto’s total net sales were nearly flat at US$2.658 billion, below analysts’ expectations for US$2.77 billion.

– with files from Reuters

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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