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The future of corn traits and stacks

Tim Dahl plunges a shovel into the soil to remove a firmly rooted cornstalk while checking root structure. 

“Hear those roots popping?” asks the Syngenta agronomic service representative. Even though this field is corn-on-corn, the corn’s root system is well protected by root-resistant traits and a soil-applied insecticide, he says. 

The field is this way on purpose, says the farmer who farms the field, Clint McGill from Albert Lea, Minnesota. McGill often rotates corn with soybeans to manage corn rootworm, but he also strip-tills corn-on-corn. Corn rootworm protection via traits has been a critical part of his program, particularly since a severe 2009 corn rootworm outbreak occurred in areas of southern Minnesota. 

“I use a combination of traits and a soil-applied insectide,” says McGill. “They’re good tools to have for managing rootworm.” 

Rootworm traits and stacks are just some of the myriad traits and stacks farmers have now and will have in the future. Also coming are new herbicide-tolerant stacks, with some microbial products tossed in. Here’s a look at what’s coming up.

Corn rootworm-Resistant stacks

Clint McGill
SmartStax combines above-ground Bt traits (like European corn borer) and below-ground insect Bt traits (like corn rootworm) found in VT Triple Pro and Herculex Xtra products. It also confers tolerance to glyphosate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty). 

Next up is SmartStax Pro, which Monsanto plans to fully launch later this decade, pending regulatory approval. SmartStax Pro stacks a new corn rootworm mode of action in an event called CRW III on top of existing SmartStax rootworm-resistant traits. Monsanto researchers used a new technology called RNA interference (RNAi) to create SmartStax Pro. It consists of a gene known as DVSNF7 inserted into a corn cell that instructs the plant to make a specific protein. This prevents a rootworm larvae from making a critical protein it needs to survive.

“When we turn that off, it dies,” says Sean Evans, Monsanto technical development manager. “That works differently than does the stomach toxin with Bt.”  

soybean herbicide stacks

Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans – with tolerance to glyphosate and dicamba – debuted in 2017. Monsanto also expects to launch a triple stack with tolerance to glyphosate, dicamba, and glufosinate (Liberty) by decade’s end, pending regulatory approval. The next decade will see soybean trait stacks developed with tolerance to:

  • Glyphosate
  • Dicamba
  • Glufosinate
  • HPPD inhibitors (a site of action to included in Callisto and Corvus herbicides)
  • A yet undetermined additional mode of action. 

Monsanto is working with Sumitomo Chemical on an integrated system for PPO inhibitor (like Flexstar) herbicide tolerance that will fit with its multi-herbicide-tolerant trait stacked products. Commercialization is expected next decade. 

Balance Bean GT Soybean Performance System from Bayer Crop Science, MS Technologies, and Mertec LLC is waiting in the wings for a full commercial launch at presstime. Its trait has received all import approvals, with China having granted import approval earlier this year. However, the herbicide component of the Balance GT Soybean Performance System – Balance Bean – must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Balance GT soybeans contain a trait that tolerates both glyphosate and isoxaflutole. Bayer Crop Science corn herbicides like Balance Flexx and Corvus contain isoxaflutole as an active ingredient. Isoxaflutole has an HPPD-inhibitor site of action, the same as mesotrione, the active ingredient in Callisto corn herbicide. 

Dow AgroScience’s Enlist Weed Control System is a go for corn in 2018. Soybeans, though, remain a stumbling block, as China and the European Union have not given approval. If Chinese and EU approval occurs, Dow plans to fully launch its Enlist and Enlist E3 soybeans in 2018. 

The Enlist Weed Control System confers herbicide tolerance to a new 2,4-D formulation – 2,4-D choline – and glyphosate in corn, soybeans, and cotton and fop herbicides in corn. Federal regulators have approved the herbicide portion of the system, Enlist Duo. It’s a mix of glyphosate and 2,4-D choline. Enlist soybeans and Enlist E3 soybeans tolerate 2,4-D choline, glyphosate, and glufosinate.

Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta are developing a stack of mesotrione (Callisto), glufosinate (Liberty), and isoxaflutole (Balance) herbicides called MGI. Pending regulatory approval, it’s slated for a full commercial launch in 2019, says David Hollinrake, president of Syngenta Seeds and North America regional director.

“That trait stack will be (for Syngenta) the foundation stack on top of other traits for proprietary genetics on soybeans,” says Hollinrake. 

abiotic stressor stacks

Insects and weeds have been the focal point for companies developing traits and trait stacks for corn and soybeans. They’re expanding their products toward more elusive plant stressors like intense heat, drought, or cold soils.

Abiotic stressors trigger $200 billion in annual global crop losses, says Ian Jepson, who heads trait research and developmental biology for Syngenta Crop Protection. 

“Problems with abiotic stress will become more acute, particularly with the challenge of climate change and fresh water shortages,” says Jepson.

One example of how Syngenta is developing products that can withstand abiotic stressors is its Agrisure Artesian hybrids. Syngenta touts these hybrids as increasing yields up to 15% over comparable hybrids under drought. 

Syngenta also has five traits in the late-research phase (commercialization is still a few years away) to help corn plants better use water. 

Changes farmers will see in the next several years won’t just include traits. Bayer Crop Science recently launched a new company with a Boston firm named Ginkgo Bioworks, which designs custom microbes in multiple markets including agriculture. Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science, sees Ginkgo Bioworks as the rare deal that could be highly disruptive due to the impact it could have on the ability of microbes to improve the way legumes (like soybeans and peas) fix nitrogen. 

Bumping into all this development, however, are low commodity prices. Don’t give up, though.

“Eventually, we will find the bottom, and then we are going to start the next cycle up in a market recovery,” says Richard Wilkins, a Greenwood, Delaware, farmer. “The best time to be experimenting and trying out new technologies is during times like these,” he says.

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