What has 10 years of Roundup Ready brought?
Opinions vary on where it is heading.
November 13, 2007 By Ralph Pearce
In 1995 when Roundup Ready soybeans hit the market in the US, opponents resisted
the introduction of genetically modified crops. One of the key objections was
that there was no history to the technology.
Now with 10 years of genetic modification in the books, the verdict is largely
positive. There are some provisos, some diverging market opportunities and even
a few disappointments with the impact the technology has had on further development.
However, the consensus is that glyphosate resistant soybeans and corn have
been a help to the agri-food sector, not a hindrance. "Assuming an 'A'
is the top of the line, it's an 'A', as far as weed management is concerned,"
says Dr. Al Hamill, a weed researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's
Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre at Harrow, Ontario. Hamill is
a proponent of the technology but is quick to note that other factors can affect
the final assessment. "Some of us are still concerned with the development
of resistance and within the last little while, I'm hearing more reports about
the spread of weeds that are resistant and new species that are showing some
Resistance is an emerging reality
The resistance issue surfaced with particular strength in 2004 with the revelation
of glyphosate resistant Canada fleabane moving north in Indiana and Ohio. This
only added to the number of states and weed species that have been reporting
resistance to glyphosate in recent years.
Another trend that Hamill has seen is the timing of glyphosate applications.
Applicators often wait until every last weed has emerged. "They're simply
spraying too late, and that becomes another factor, where they're losing yield
and don't even know it," says Hamill. He calls it ironic that the best
control comes with an early application at the one litre per acre rate. Doing
so, however, increases the need for a second application, or the weather allows
for a second flush or late emergers. Also there is the use of glyphosate as
a burndown. "Then you're dosing the environment with another shot of it
and if you use it again and again, that gets us into the situation of where
we tend to find the resistance coming along."
Hamill has worked with Dr. Peter Sikkema from Ridgetown College to research
weed shifts on clay and sand and in no-till versus conventional. Hamill has
found no shifts in the weed mix where he has used Roundup Ready technology compared
But again, Hamill adds his voice to that of other researchers that glyphosate
resistance in crops has been a boon to the industry. "It's an excellent
technology to use, and that goes along with using it in moderation," says
Good and perhaps getting better
Sikkema is a staunch supporter of glyphosate and Roundup Ready technology. But
like Hamill, he advocates a wiser approach to using the two. "In terms
of weed management, it's just uncomparable, the level of weed control is more
consistent, there's a broader spectrum and a wider window of application,"
explains Sikkema, an assistant professor in field crop weed management. His
biggest concern is over-using the technology. "It's so good, the temptation
is there to use it too often, which increases the selection pressure for glyphosate
resistant weeds. Consequently, it will not be as useful, whether it's five,
10 or 20 years from now. If that happens, we've really done the farmers of the
future a disservice by not managing this technology properly.
In spite of the challenges of the present, Sikkema looks to the near future
and developments that are underway, as signs of where the technology is set
to take the industry. New active ingredients are being evaluated, mostly in
corn, and Sikkema notes the University of Nebraska has just sold the transgene
that confers resistance to dicamba to Monsanto. "So now you have the potential
for a Roundup-dicamba stack in soybeans," he says, calling it 'an incredible
In addition, DuPont is working on finding a metabolic process that breaks down
glyphosate in much the same way that corn metabolizes atrazine. "If you
can do that, you won't have residues in the plant," says Sikkema. "Whereas,
you could argue that with the present technology, there's the possibility of
glyphosate circulating in the plant. The reason the plant lives is that the
metabolic pathway is not affected."
An interesting perspective from all sides
From an 'agribusiness opportunity' perspective, Roundup Ready technology had
a reactionary effect on another market. Henry Olechowski, research director
of Hyland Seeds and Thompsons Limited of Blenheim, Ontario, sees the issues
from both sides of the industry. As part of a company that acts as breeder,
seed sales division and processor, Olechowski has seen demand for GM crops rise,
yet spur the growth of IP opportunities.
Originally, he notes, company executives thought glyphosate tolerant soybeans
would be a 'flash in the pan'. "Today, we estimate there's about 60 percent
Roundup Ready soybeans being grown in Ontario and that figure seems to be growing
slowly," says Olechowski. He made his comments to the annual meeting of
the Canadian Weed Science Society in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in November 2005.
Although the parent company had to answer the demand for genetically modified
seed, the fringe benefit came as growers recognized the opportunities within
IP markets. "The IP acreage has increased in Canada to where it's now 25
to 30 percent of the total soybean acres."
In fact, Thompsons has seen increasing interest from Pacific Rim countries.
In 2001, the company hosted 34 trade missions and saw that number climb to more
than 60 by 2005. In particular, members of the visiting delegations were interested
in Thompsons' process, from seed breeding to the farm to the processor. "There
really are a lot of opportunities and in the last 20 years, we've just started
to learn what those are," says Olechowski. He cites Roundup Ready as an
opportunity, the same as IP markets represent another. The key product in the
equation is value.
Thompsons has a 'Circle of Communications' which identifies all its participants,
seed developer, grower, handler, processor, retailer and consumer, as having
an equal stake. "To make it work, everybody has to realize a benefit from
a technology, and usually that benefit translates into money, in one way or
another," explains Olechowski.
Where is it heading?
When he looks to the future, Conor Dobson sees the potential for dramatic change
tempered by the after effects of the early days of GM technology. In spite of
the fact that soybeans, corn, canola and cotton, and their respective markets
have been the beneficiaries of the technology, he believes expectations would
have been higher 10 years after their inception. "My view is that where
resistance occurred, in Europe and other places, it has probably dampened a
lot of research," says Dobson, director of public and government affairs
with Bayer CropScience. "There are experiences where some interesting advances
in biotech crops, which probably would have been grabbed up by the multi-nationals,
likely never got through their funding, based on this uncertainty which was
created about labelling and whether consumers would accept it."
In the long-term, some agronomic advancements that were subsequently put on
the developmental backburner may resurface. But in the short-term, there are
several hurdles that must be overcome. Dobson was one of the keynote speakers
at the Weed Science Society meeting to address global regulatory problems and
the 'adventitious presence' issue.
Adventitious presence refers to the incidental and unintentional commingling
of trace amounts of seed or grain. At present there are no consistent standards,
globally. Europe has different standards for seeds than other countries. "Are
there ways that if three or four OECD countries were to approve the safety of
something, perhaps the next country would be able to accept trace levels?"
asks Dobson. Standards must be established for a truly global economy, he adds.
But if Asia begins showing signs of accepting the technology, things will change
rapidly. "There's a huge interest in India, and China is probably doing
more than we know, but I think that will open the world to the technology."