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Your Farm in the Future: Future seeds

Biotechnology is a broader area of science than just Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

It has developed many techniques that are implemented with useful effects in agriculture. Many of these techniques are described with acronyms like MAB (marker-assisted breeding), CMS (cytoplasmic male sterility), and SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), to name a few. There are words like phenotyping, rhizosphere, epiphytes, and endophytes.

Will you have to be a molecular geneticist to farm in the future?

Not really, but it may feel that way. The acronyms and words here are gleaned from annual reports from several major agricultural companies.

They underpin the huge investments companies are making to keep improving productivity. Five companies have research and development budgets for their agricultural businesses exceeding $1 billion: Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer, and John Deere.

What matters to you is what has always mattered most: your bottom line. That comes from better plants, more efficient nutrition for those plants, keeping out competition from pests, and making all this happen with more efficient use of capital goods. Higher value output per dollar invested is what you want.

Output per unit of land will keep growing in the future at 1.2% to 1.5% per year, enabled by better germplasm, more hybrid crops, and likely somewhat faster development and replacement cycles.

Here are some good examples. Hybrid rice now is over half of the rice grown in China. Hybrid barley has started to penetrate Europe. Hybrid sunflower, rye, and vegetables all are growing. Hybrid wheat will become a commercial reality soon.

What else is in the pipeline? Biotech researchers promise that every three to five years we may expectnext-version herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and drought tolerance (at least in corn). Within four to seven years, we probably will see new mechanisms for insect control that will expand the categories of insects to which crops present resistance.

Corn, soybeans, and cotton will continue to receive major R&D investments to keep the innovation pipeline filled for decades to come. The competition between the seed and chemical industry players will surely continue, and it will be very interesting to watch.

A few declared research targets are a bit further out but certainly will be on the shopping list of many farmers. A fungal disease-resistance trait (Defensin) is moving toward commercialization in wheat, rice, and other crops. Drought-tolerant wheat (maybe fungal-resistant, as well) will be welcomed in wide swaths of the Plains states, central Eurasia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Sahel area in Africa. Soybeans are being bred for better feed value to get more pounds of meat from each acre of crop. Improved nitrogen efficiency on corn would redefine agronomy.

There are a few successful proof-of-concept technologies that are in the pipeline now, and that will move to field tests soon. Alone, each could play a big part in solving the never fully resolved issue of feeding the world. Each of them could – or could not – be commercial within five to 10 years.

Some future seeds will be found in the fruit and vegetable departments of your local supermarket, signifying that not all innovation is expressed in bushels per acre. For instance, consumer preferences change because of taste, visual appearance, or convenience.

Consider that seedless watermelons were launched in 2002, and within one year they took half the market.

Ten years later, they have 90% of the market. Ten years ago, iceberg lettuce outsold romaine three to one. Now romaine outsells iceberg.

We’ve seen how tomatoes have taken on all possible sizes, shapes, and colors in recent years.

You can count on seeds of the future also including seedless bell peppers, single-serving-size lettuce and Chinese cabbage, raspberries and bananas with longer shelf life, and sweeter green beans. In other words, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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