Although the biotech and native gene trait pipeline is already extensive, it is just the start of something even bigger. It is not unusual to hear a phrase like “the possibilities are limitless” when you talk with trait developers about the future of traits and their impact, not only on agriculture, but on the general economy and environment as well.
“We're just in the Model T stage of biotech's potential and the potential of genomics and marker-assisted breeding,” says Syngenta Seeds' Jack Bernens. In the near term, he expects crop traits to help improve efficiencies in the animal feed and ethanol markets. He also predicts there will be traits that help improve drought tolerance and that provide protection against rapidly changing plant diseases.
“In 20 years, we'll likely begin to see significant developments in biotech,” Bernens says. “The sky's the limit. Cells are a very efficient way of producing materials, ingredients and compounds.”
Ben Kaehler, Dow AgroSciences, predicts new developments in the areas of crop yield enhancement and animal nutrition and health. In addition to developing new crop traits, Dow is working on its Concert plant-cell-produced vaccine technology, which uses plant-cell cultures rather than whole plants. Plant-cell-produced vaccines made in a biocontained system have several advantages over whole plant systems, including minimizing environmental concerns, Dow reports.
Such products, while still several years off, could be used to help fight diseases such as West Nile virus, avian influenza and canine diabetes, Kaehler says.
Bill Niebur, vice president, crop genetics research and development, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, sees potential for using genes from both inside and outside of the maize and soybean genomes.
With the increasing costs of land and crop inputs, the industry will need to provide products that fully express their genetic potential, Niebur says. At the same time, technology developers will need to understand where growers' operations are evolving economically and in the face of environmental regulations.
It will be important to think in “macro” terms, Niebur says, adding that because demand is likely to increase for ethanol and other end-use markets, there may be much more corn following corn in the future. Interstate-80 could become the “ethanol corridor” and we could see a large number of cattle feedlots nearby using the by-products from ethanol facilities, he says.
Corn plant of the future
With the potential for more corn-on-corn production, researchers will be working to strengthen corn's ability to establish stands so that the maximum potential for yield is fully realized, Niebur says. Corn will be better able to tolerate cold, wet or dry conditions and to defend itself against diseases.
Corn of the future also will have greater ability to extract soil nutrients in suboptimal conditions and to dry down more quickly in the field, thereby reducing drying costs.
John Jansen, corn trait marketing manager, Monsanto, notes that because water is such a valuable resource, research to improve water utilization will continue to be critical. But drought tolerance also is one of the most complex traits to develop, he says. Monsanto is currently working on drought-tolerant corn, soybeans and cotton.
Jansen adds that another key development will be improved nitrogen utilization. With the increasing costs of petroleum, farmers are interested in corn that can more efficiently utilize nitrogen at standard fertilizer rates, he says.
While input costs for soybeans are lower than those for corn, Niebur says that they must yield at higher levels to justify their future position in a corn-soybean rotation. Pioneer will use both biotechnology and conventional plant breeding to remove genetic or biological limitations in soybeans so that they will more consistently reach the 100-bu./acre mark, he notes.
Monsanto's next-generation Roundup Ready soybean product, Roundup Ready2Yield, is in advanced development, and in trials, it is seeing up to a 5-bu. increase over current Roundup Ready soybean varieties.
Reshaping rural communities
“We'll likely see a dramatic change in the use of water, land and nutrients going forward,” Niebur says. “Science and biotechnology have the ability to continue to reduce the environmental footprint that agriculture makes.”
He adds that biotechnology will help drive new and unconventional markets and that it has the potential “to reshape rural communities and how the land is used.” Niebur says that, with biotech's potential in renewable energy markets, agriculture “is poised to have a favorable impact on rural, national and international economies.”