What are Crop Protection Traits?
Crop Protection Traits make crops healthier and better able to withstand their environment. They enable farmers to have higher yields and reduce the use of the Crop Protection chemicals, fertilizers, fuel and manpower.
The objective of breeding programs is to develop genetic traits that provide characteristics in a plant that are desired by the grower or the consumer of the plant. In general, the desired characteristics fall into three categories:
- Output traits that are associated with the characteristics of the harvested product such as high-oleic acid soybeans;
- Input traits that are associated with the health of the plant and helping farmers manage the quality, yield, and cost of a crop; and
- Agronomic Traits that are associated with physical or physiological characteristics of plants.
Crop Protection Traits include both Input Traits and Agronomic Traits.
Crop Protection Traits are important because they directly impact the yield and the cost associated with producing a crop. There are numerous examples of important (and large) Crop Protection Traits that have had transformational effects on farming practice. An example would be Bt corn that eliminated the need to apply a pesticide to control European corn borer. Another example would be Roundup resistant crops that allow producers to spray Roundup for weed control without damaging crop plants. In both cases, the trait materially improved yields and materially lowered or eliminated the use and cost of crop protection chemicals such as herbicides and insecticides and materially lowered the fuel/manpower used in crop protection.
This is the importance of Crop Protection Traits. They enable farmers to lower the use of crop protection chemicals and the fuel/manpower used to deliver them with Crop Protection Traits.
Crop Protection Traits are one of the pillars of a “Seed and Trait Business”. Trait Products are the output of the massive breeding programs by the “Seed and Trait Companies”. These breeding programs divide their activities into two groups:
- Input and agronomic traits;
- Output traits.
Output traits are directed towards improving the characteristics of the harvested product. Input and agronomic traits are directed towards improving the yield and the cost of the process of producing the specific products. These traits generally focus on making a specific plant be better able to withstand the environment in which they are grown. Input and agronomic traits are what we refer to as Crop Protection Traits.
Crop Protection Traits are non-chemical solutions that make farming more efficient, profitable, and sustainable. In essence, Crop Protection Traits let farmers do more for less while enabling equivalent or higher yields.
The Success of GMO traits in Corn and Soybean
The GMO era was the coming of age for the Crop Protection Trait business. GMO technologies created several blockbuster Crop Protection Traits for Herbicide Tolerance and Insect Resistance with trait fees estimated to be over $1 billion annually. Examples of these blockbuster trait products are: Weed Control: Round-up Ready®; Liberty Link®; and Insect Control: using Bt or RNA interference. It is reported by the USDA that over 90% of corn and soybean crops in the United States had GMO-based traits by 2016 (Fig. 1). These traits have been adopted so widely because they are a main source of the growth and profitability of these crops seen since their introduction.
The farmer pays license fees for the intellectual property associated with each trait when they purchase their seed for planting each year. The trait fees are based on the favorable economics provided by the specific trait in a specific crop in a specific environment. An example of the economics would be higher yield that increases a farmer’s revenue or less cost associated with reduced pesticide (chemical) use and the fuel and manpower required for application. It is estimated trait fees earned by the seed and trait companies is typically 25% of the positive economics. In other words, these traits are very profitable to the farmer and are very important in the ongoing sustainability of farming.
The actual license or trait fees (royalties) earned for herbicide tolerance traits associated with herbicides like Round-Up Ready®, LibertyLink® or Clearfield®, could range from $5 to $20 per acre* depending on the crop, the effectiveness and the geography or environment. These fees could go higher depending on the cost of the herbicide the trait is replacing. For the existing GMO-based insect resistance traits like BT, it is estimated that the trait fees earned could vary from $10 to $20 per acre depending on the insect control benefits provided**, their effectiveness and the specific geography.
Because of the large number of acres involved, it is estimated that the annual trait fees paid for these limited GMO-based traits still exceeds $10 billion annually.
The Reaction and Restrictions on GMO Traits
Unfortunately, there was a negative reaction against GMO technologies that occurred approximately 20 years ago that resulted in a series of adverse regulations. Virtually all the major first-generation GMO crop protection traits were developed over 20 years ago: before the GMO regulations were wide spread. Some geographic areas such as the European Union even banned the cultivation of these important trait products. The increased cost to meet the regulatory requirements in countries that permitted GMO products and the limited Global markets due to the areas that banned GMO technologies severely limited GMO-based development of new classes of GMO-traits or expansion beyond a few major crops.
The regulations of GMO technologies were established in spite of the fact that these trait products had a massive impact on the productivity of farming and the full support and acceptance of the farming community. An important result of these restrictive GMO regulations is that, in countries where cultivation of GMO technologies was permitted, there is virtually no herbicide producer for any crop that does not offer a weed control package that includes a GMO crop protection trait that makes the specific crop resistant to a specific herbicide.
A main focus of R&D in agriculture for the last 20 years has been the development of new breeding technologies (NBTs) and new genomic technologies (NGTs) that do not use transgenes or recombinant genetic material that were the principal objections of the anti-GMO regulations. It is these technologies such as Cibus RTDS technologies that has caused the regulators to reassess the GMO regulations.
Recently, most major countries now have either voted to treat these NBTs or NGTs on the same basis as traditional breeding or have processes underway that appear positive to these precision gene editing technologies. As these regulations change to enable cultivation globally, the belief is that the gene editing revolution in agriculture will jump start trait development in all crops. Given the continued decrease in arable land per population and the impacts of climate change, the emergence of precision gene editing and changes in regulations could not be timelier.
Globally Available Crop Protection Traits for all Crops
The explosion of genomic technologies over the past 20 years has been transformational. The mapping of the human and first plant genome, Arabidopsis, only happened a little more than 20 years ago as did the evolution of cloud computing and the founding of the major sequencing companies like Illumina. These developments as well as the sequencing of almost 200 plant genomes has enabled a deeper understanding of how gene sequence relates to physical appearance.
It is for this reason that precision gene editing in agriculture is considered the dawning of a major new era of innovation and change. Globally, each country appears to be on a path to regulate these new breeding technologies on the same basis as traditional breeding. Eliminating the GMO restrictions on the cultivation and import/export of gene edited products is a major step in making the new innovations: global innovations open to all global markets and all crops.
In other words, the big difference between the historical crop protection trait business and the future crop protection trait business is that it is now possible to envision the reshaping of the global crop protection industry with globally approved crop protection traits available for all crops. We can finally begin the process of materially reducing the crop protection chemicals used today.
Because of the number of crops and the number of acres involved in the global agriculture industry, gene editing will become a major new global technology industry impacting billions of acres on a global basis that will materially change the amount of chemicals and fuel currently used in crop protection and materially change agriculture’s carbon footprint. Importantly, it will directly impact the sustainability of our food supply impacting billions of people globally.
Cibus expects to be a leader in this revolution, and in so doing, help to Reshape the Business of Crop Protection and the sustainability of farming.