Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Remember herbicides?...

I'm spending time with my FJ colleagues in South Bend as part of our editorial Grand High Conclave, or whatever.  One topic that emerged (actually I brought it up, as one of the revered Old Ones) was what if we get back to the old days of herbicide competition?

No seriously. I'm already putting down half-rates of residuals to help my RR crops and control resistant weeds. At what point does the RR trait become worth less? 

My guess is 2008.  And this may be the reason why we have this announcement...
When Monsanto said three years ago it would double its annual profit by 2012, the company was making a bold bet on its future — selling biotech seeds rather than old-line chemicals.
Now, the company's past is catching up with it. And the future of biotech seed is looking tougher than imagined.
On Wednesday, Chief Executive Hugh Grant said for the first time Wednesday that Monsanto won't likely hit its 2012 goal. The reason is twofold. Unexpected losses in the herbicide division are dragging down the rest of the company, and farmers don't seem willing to pay a premium price for next-generation biotech seeds.
As a result, the world's biggest seed maker is trimming its expectations. Grant said the company would now deliver profit growth in the "mid-teens" annually, rather than hitting its mark for 2012. [More]
Not to simply add coals, but what if the Bt traits have similar lifespans?  I've wondered, for example if the remarkable performance of Bt hybrids on corn borers would wipe the little suckers out.
Population levels of ECB appear to have declined in recent years in many regions along the eastern and central United States. The reason for this apparent decline is not definitively known, but most likely involves the increased use of transgenic Bt corn, which provides virtually 100% control of ECB. Since ECB utilizes corn as its major host plant for food and reproduction (4), ECB population dynamics will undoubtedly be negatively impacted in areas where Bt corn dominates the agricultural landscape. This phenomenon can be demonstrated in Painter, VA, where ECB pest management research has been conducted for several decades, and where Bt corn use on the surrounding farmland of the Delmarva Peninsula has increased steadily over the last 10 years. Historical counts of ECB moths caught in a black light trap located in Painter have shown a distinct drop over the past decade (Fig. 2). Similarly, there has been a decline in ECB damage in the untreated control plots from potato and bell pepper insecticide experiments over that same time period (Fig. 3). Evidence of ECB decline has been reported in the Midwestern United States as well (8). Annual fall surveys of overwintering ECB larvae have shown evidence of landscape-scale suppression by Bt corn (2). [More]
While I have always flinched when farmers declaimed themselves to be "victims of their own success", this might be a bona fide example. Suppose we have reduced the ECB populations to trivial levels.  What value does that trait deliver?

Right now I think this is a big gamble, but next year or 2012 might be a different story.

Meanwhile, what if the dosage levels are creating resistant rootworms?  (BTW, this keeps me awake at night)

Bruce Potter, University of Minnesota Extension integrated pest management specialist, learned there was an atypical corn rootworm problem when he started getting phone calls last September.

“Rootworm Bt corn was falling down. There were a lot of corn rootworms,” Potter said. “If you looked at the roots, the lower nodes were doing fine, it was the upper nodes that were getting hammered.”

The phone calls came in from southeast and southwest Minnesota, as well as from a couple of smaller regions in south central Minnesota.

Based out of the Southwest Research & Outreach Center near Lamberton, Minn., Potter was surprised by the late feeding.

Corn rootworms (CRW) hatch from over-wintering eggs in mid-June. The larvae pass through three instars as they feed on corn roots.

Peak feeding occurs for several weeks and pupation occurs in mid-July. The adults emerge five to 10 days later.

Emergence is normally observed from mid-July to mid-August, and egg laying begins 10-14 days after adult emergence.

“We don't know the reason for this (September emergence),” he said. “We don't know if it was resistance. We don't know if it was reduced protein levels. In other words, perhaps there wasn't as much Bt protein in the older roots and that's what they were attacking.

“We don't know if the hatch or the attack on roots was delayed for some reason. We don't know what's going on, and we really don't know how widespread the issue it was,” he added.

Potter hopes the scenario was a result of last year's unique weather conditions and not a situation caused by CRW selection pressure. [More]
None of this is proof that traits have let us down, but such evidence raises doubts for this corn grower. At the very least, I will be pushing my spreadsheet for numbers to quantify those doubts about trait efficacy.


Anonymous said...

FWIW: I grow a corn test plot every year. 5 years ago bt hybrids always topped the plots. The last 2 years there has been no significant difference between the top traited or untraited corn.

Ewan R said...

I would have thought that corn borer populations, while being reduced, would be hard to get to zero due to refuge requirements - which in turn helps to delay the evolution of resistance - which in turn will hopefully be manageable with multiple IR traits stacked.

So it may be a profitable strategy to ditch IR traits assuming everyone around you doesn't do the same, however a widespread move away from the technology would surely (perhaps over a year or two) essentially put you right back at square one?

My feel is that Monsanto profitability in herbicide isn't due to less glyphosate useage, but due to the massively intense competition in the glyphosate market - Monsanto took a beating last year, and had to severely reduce pricing this year while still seeing massive levels of competition for herbicide, combine this with low end adoption of targetted rates for RR2Y soy and martstax corn this year (and stagnant growth or reduction in market share in corn/soy respectively - which hurts and confuses when you've got a monopoly...) and a doubling of gross profit from 07 to 12 just seems unlikely - the next couple of years will show how well adoption of RR2Y and smartstax goes after release year, and how Monsanto strategy may change around new releases so that greater market penetrance can be achieved in the year of release.