By Emily Unglesbee
DTN News Intern
LAWRENCE, Kan. (DTN) -- South American farmers got a taste of the future last year, after nearly 14,000 farmers in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay planted an estimated 3 million acres of Intacta RR2 Pro, Monsanto's line of Bt soybeans.
The company is also working on a second-generation Bt-soybean product that will contain three Bt proteins and is on track to be released at the end of this decade in South America. Recently, Dow AgroSciences has also announced the development of its own two-traited Bt-soybean product, which would be offered as a stack with the company's Enlist herbicide tolerance in Brazil and Argentina in three to five years, according to a company press release.
No Bt-soybean varieties are approved for commercial use in the U.S. yet, but an upswing in insect activity in beans in both the U.S. and South America could change that, Monsanto's soybean insect protection lead Miriam Paris told DTN. The company is currently working with 10 universities and certain industry partners such as the National Cotton Council and Cotton Inc. to explore how Bt soybeans would fit into the U.S. agricultural landscape.
INSECTS ON THE RISE
Soybeans have lagged well behind other commodities in Bt technology, which has been in use in corn and cotton in the U.S. and globally since the mid-1990s. The decades-long gap has been driven partly by commodity prices and pest trends, Paris told DTN.
"Specifically in the U.S., if you go back a couple years ago, the insect pressure just was not there to justify the development of a (Bt-soybean) product and that was actually true of South America, as well," she said. "In the last five years, we've really seen an uptake of insect activity in soybeans. So that's what's driving the development of these products pretty steadily there."
The 2012 arrival of the damaging Helicoverpa armigera caterpillar in Brazil has served to spur the need for new crop protections there. A relative of the corn earworm in the U.S., the armigera caterpillar is known for developing rapid resistance to pesticides and has proven to be a voracious global pest. The Brazilian Agriculture Ministry announced a state of emergency in several states in 2013 and authorized the use of a previously restricted insecticide after farmers struggled to control the caterpillar with more traditional pesticides.
Monsanto sent representatives down to regions of Brazil in December 2013 specifically to see how Intacta was holding up against the armigera caterpillar. Paris said they concluded that Intacta was "remaining efficacious" against the pest, despite the high insect pressure they witnessed.
"This specific tour was in Western Bahia, which is kind of the epicenter of where armigera was," Paris reported. "The damage was pretty significant, from a (non-Bt) soybean standpoint, while we were there. Soybeans had been planted roughly two weeks before our arrival, and they had already applied an insecticide in the burndown, they had an insecticide in the seed treatment, and they had already applied two foliar sprays. In the Roundup Ready 1 soybeans, you could still see damage from the armigera, but the Intacta looked very clean."
Bob Tetrault, a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service crop analyst, took stock of soybean conditions while traveling in Mato Grosso in February. He estimated that soybean yields there might reach 54-57 sacks per hectare (roughly equal to 48-51 bushels an acre), which would top regional records of 52 sacks an hectare (46 bpa).
He credited Intacta with some yield gains and noted that the Bt-soybean trait allowed growers to cut their spraying from five to three passes, which paid for the seed premium.
"Monsanto's double-stack did very well when put into a high-yielding variety," Tetrault said of Intacta, noting that some growers achieved 72-75 sacks/hectare (64-67 bpa). "When inserted into a good-yielding local variety, the yield bonus is there," he told DTN. However, other Intacta varieties didn't do as well, so the underlying genetics remain important, he added.
Future refuge compliance among South American farmers will be critical for preserving the lifespan of Intacta and future Bt-soybean products, Paris noted. She said the company has been working to educate growers and incentivize refuge compliance by not requiring farmers to segregate their Intacta beans from their non-Bt refuge beans when they deliver the grain. Refuge-in-a-bag (RIB) was considered but dismissed as infeasible because how mobile pests are within a soybean canopy, she added.
Monsanto is currently "assessing the technical fit of Bt soybeans" in the United States, Paris said.
That means revisiting their own work from 2006, when the company submitted a proposal arguing that crops such as soybeans, tobacco, and peanuts supplied a "natural refuge" for their new Bollgard II Bt-cotton trait in the southern U.S.
The Environmental Protection Agency agreed and allowed farmers in Southern states to drop non-Bt cotton refuges inside their Bollgard II fields, a move that one study estimated increased farmers' revenue by $15 million per year and Monsanto's revenue by $2.4 million per year.
However, introducing Bt soybeans into the farming landscape, particularly in the cotton-planting Southern states, could jeopardize what Monsanto originally determined to be a major source of natural refuges that would help slow insect resistance to Bt proteins.
"When we completed the original study that led to cotton natural refuge being accepted by the EPA, we made the hypothesis that soybean could be one of the major contributors to natural refuge," Paris noted. "We have newer tools in place that allow us to quantify the role that soybean actually plays, so we're going back and reassessing and really trying to understand what the impact would be of a Bt-soybean product."
Paris said the two-year assessment with academic scientists and industry partners will wrap up its first year of data and review in March or April. Any future U.S. products would take years of regulatory action before a commercial release, however.
"If the analysis comes back and it looks like the introduction of Bt soybeans would be sustainable and a solution that our growers are interested in, in that agro-ecosystem, we're looking at the late part of this decade," Paris said.
South Americans, at least, are forging ahead. "We believe acres and grower participation will more than double in the sophomore year of Intacta RR2 Pro," Paris said of the 2014-15 cropping season.
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at email@example.com
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