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Seed armor

Remember Tony Stark? Comic book and movie fans recall that the wealthy tycoon doubled as the superhero Iron Man.

Stark was invincible once he donned his armor. His outfit also helped shield his weakness -- a severe heart condition.

These days, seeds share a link with Stark. The eye-popping yield potential of today's crops is anchored in top-notch genetics and traits. The weak link, though, is the pack of pests waiting to attack.

That's where seed treatments come in. They can fend off pests and protect the seed's genetics and traits.

"You only have one chance to get a stand," says Mark Jirak, crop manager for Syngenta Seed Care. "If not, you play catch-up all season."

Name a crop -- corn, soybeans, alfalfa, canola, cotton, or wheat -- and you'll find a kaleidoscope of colors that signal seed treatments of fungicides, insecticides, and nematicides.

In corn, insecticides belonging to the chloronicotinyl family have joined fungicides as standard treatment. More are likely to come, says Gary Munkvold, Iowa State University (ISU) plant pathologist.

"Soon, six active ingredients may be common on seed corn as a standard treatment," he says.

Treated soybean seed isn't as common on corn, but that's changing. U.S. farmers planted around 28% of soybean seed treated with an insecticide, fungicide, or both in 2005. In 2008, Syngenta estimates peg that number at 52%, with 2010 estimates at 70%, says Jirak. Other technology on tap includes triggered-release delivery of active ingredients, says Monty Bayer, Dow AgroSciences U.S. marketing director. Ditto for technologies to encapsulate, coat, or encrust materials that enhance seed products.

Remember Tony Stark? Comic book and movie fans recall that the wealthy tycoon doubled as the superhero Iron Man.

Seed is more valuable today than when it contained just a trait or two over a decade ago. In the 1990s, herbicide resistance in corn and soybeans and European corn borer resistance in corn were it. In 2010, corn stacks will leap to eight weed and insect traits when Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto unveil their collaboration, the SmartStax package.

Insecticide seed treatments give farmers a good insect management tool, says Steffey. Still, their continual use blanketed over vast areas -- some that contain no insect targets -- raises resistance concerns.

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