Biotechnology has changed the face of U.S. agriculture. In 1996, the first year of commercial production, glyphosate-tolerant soybeans were planted on only about one million acres. Today more than 90% of U.S. soybeans are planted to herbicide-resistant varieties and more than 73% of U.S. corn is planted to biotech hybrids. But you haven't seen anything yet.

New tools

Biotech now gives scientists a clear path to a whole host of new traits and the tools to work with them. Scientists are learning more each day about how the gene sequence works and are using biotech tools to identify specific genes that can benefit the plant.

Kay Simmons, national program leader for plant genetics and grain crops with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, says the new knowledge gained through biotech will benefit plant breeders as they develop more stress-tolerant, higher-yielding products using either conventional plant breeding or biotechnology.

“New information gained from biotechnology will help speed up plant breeding using traditional methods,” Simmons says. “And we now have tools in which we can exploit genes from the wild relatives of crop plants. We have the ability to grab a gene from one wild relative and combine it with a gene from a commercial variety or hybrid of the same crop.”

Intragenics is perhaps one of the more exciting breakthroughs in biotechnology. “These are methods to silence or manipulate a gene within a crop plant, rather than bring a foreign gene from another plant or organism,” Simmons explains. “It benefits plant breeders because it is more efficient to use the plant's own genes to develop new cultivars.”

As scientists look to the next generation of biotech crops, it's likely that there will be a richer mix of sources of the traits and how the traits are used in the plant. “Our knowledge in crops like corn is increasing tremendously,” says David Fischhoff, vice president of technology, strategy and development at Monsanto. “We have the ability to select genes from crop plants that previously would have been very difficult to discover. Now we know by the DNA sequence how these genes function.”

The research also has become less expensive. “The cost of figuring out a genetic sequence and deciphering how key traits are controlled genetically has dropped dramatically,” says Peter Bretting, national program leader with the USDA-ARS.

Which traits?

But exactly how do scientists narrow the field and know which products will be needed in the coming decades? It's a challenging task, especially with the vast array of possibilities that biotech brings to plant breeders. It's simply a matter of focusing on the issues that currently affect producers: productivity and yield.

“We really focus on the problem areas that growers have now that we can solve,” Fischhoff says. “We then see what tools, genes and breeding results might impact those areas. The final choice of the projects that we work on at any stage comes from a combination of these factors.

“We then filter through and find the ones that have the biggest market impact,” Fischhoff continues. “Drought tolerance, for instance, has a wide-ranging impact.”

The 2007 season may give us a glimpse of how biotech will continue to benefit producers. “There were regions of the country that experienced drought, yet corn producers are saying that their yields are much higher than they anticipated,” Bretting says. “I attribute that to breeding for stress tolerance. We have knowledge about the genetic control of resistance to stress that was not available 10 years ago.”

Stress tolerance, nitrogen use and boosting the ability of the plant to produce more grain per acre will remain key areas that biotechnology will impact in the coming decades.

But even with less expensive, and more powerful, genetic tools, each new trait must be tested in the field, under a variety of conditions. “The actual field testing has become increasingly expensive compared to the cost of biotechnology tools,” Bretting says. “The end product must still be tested in the field over many locations, planting conditions and years.”

Acceptance

One issue that will linger is consumer acceptance of biotechnology. While U.S. consumers have generally accepted biotech products, that's not the case in Europe. Any biotech product must be technically and socially feasible, says Lawrence Busch, distinguished professor at Michigan Sate University. “Biotechnology holds great promise, but consumers still have suspicion of what is in their food supply,” he says.

To the producer, the bottom line for agriculture biotechnology will be performance, both in the field and in the pocketbook. While traits available to the marketplace can show direct value to the producer, some of the newer traits may be more difficult to assess.

“Insect-resistant traits have proven valuable, especially with corn at its current price,” says Robert Nielsen, professor of agronomy at Purdue University. “However, other traits may be much harder to gauge, and the success or failure of these traits will depend on farmer acceptance, price of the technology and payoff.”

New technologies will most certainly cost producers more, but Nielsen says it's important to know exactly what the payoff will be. “It all comes down to performance,” he says. “If a $220 bag of corn seed outperforms a $150 bag of corn seed by 30 bushels to the acre, you can more than justify the extra price.”