Seed Company Leaders Provide Insights on What's in the Pipeline
To date, the buzz about biotechnology within the sugarbeet sector has focused largely on Roundup Ready® sugarbeets. First grown commercially in 2007 in north central Wyoming, Roundup Ready beet acreage skyrocketed the following year. For the past four years, Roundup Ready varieties have been planted on around 95% of total U.S. (and Canadian) sugarbeet acreage as growers have embraced the benefits for their individual farming operations.
As important a player as Roundup Ready varieties are, however, they’re really the “opening chapter” in a futuristic biotech book now being written. That was the core message from three seed company leaders who comprised the “Potential Opportunities in Sugarbeet Biotechnology” panel at the 2013 American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting. The three were: Steve Fritz, general manager of SES Vanderhave USA; Darcy Pawlik, North America industry relations lead for Syngenta; and Kurt Wickstrom, president of Betaseed, Inc. The trio discussed various challenges and likely timelines in bringing new biotech-trait products to the marketplace, and also shared some of the specific priorities at their respective companies.
SES Vanderhave’s Fritz pointed out that one of the most important objectives in bringing new genetics and biotech traits to the market is to not pull unwanted traits along with the desired ones. “In addition to eliminating unwanted traits, we focus on maintaining or increasing existing disease packages, recoverable sugar, recoverable tons — and overall grower revenue,” he noted. So rather than developing single traits in a consecutive fashion, “all active tracks are worked on at the same time.”
Bringing a new sugarbeet biotech trait to the market can take upwards of 10 years — or more, Fritz explained. The process at SES Vanderhave encompasses several critical steps: (1) trait discovery; (2) proof of concept; (3) early development; (4) advancement; (5) deregulation; (6) the pre-commercial phase; and (7) actual market delivery. “The regulatory process for any new biotech trait will continue to be long and expensive for any crop,” Fritz observed. That phase of the process is complicated by the fact that various other crops are in the governmental regulatory review/approval pipeline simultaneously with their own requests and needs.
SES Vanderhave — which recently built a new multi-million dollar greenhouse complex at its headquarters in Belgium to bolster its breeding programs — is working on several biotech sugarbeet traits. The only one that is currently commercialized in the U.S. industry is Roundup Ready beets. Other biotech projects being pursued by SES Vanderhave are still in the discovery/proof of concept/early development phases. Among them are virus resistance (e.g., rhizomania), nitrogen use efficiency, water use efficiency, fungal resistance (e.g., Cercospora leafspot), yield improvement and stacked herbicide resistance traits.
Left to right: Steve Frtiz, SES Vanderhave; Darcy Pawlik, Syngenta; Kurt Wickstrom, Betaseed.
Syngenta’s Pawlik began his remarks by reminding the ASGA audience of several key benefits reaped from biotech advancements in sugarbeets, including: new options for weed control, insect protection and disease resistance; improved crop productivity; the identification and development of integrated crop solutions; a lessening of impacts on the environment; and the preservation of a sustainable and geographically diverse supply of sugar.
One eye-opening avenue being pursued at Syngenta, Pawlik reported, is the development of a winter beet, known as WIZZARD®. These varieties would be planted in late summer/early fall in areas like the Treasure Valley of Oregon/Idaho and possibly the southern Idaho region; then harvested 10 to 11 months later. Along with agronomic benefits for the grower (up to 25% more yield, improved sugar content, more-efficient uptake of nitrogen), the winter beet also would extend the processing campaign at these areas’ factories, thus better utilizing those huge fixed assets.
Several years of overwinter trials of WIZZARD have already been conducted in Europe, with the plant survival rate being high. Successful trials also have been conducted in the United States. However, the winter beet is still a long way from commercialization, Pawlik emphasized.
Syngenta also is working on a biotech approach to rhizomania resistance. The trait is based on a gene silencing mechanism that stops the replication of the virus within the plant cell. Efficacy of this event — referred to as GM RZ — has been proven in greenhouse and field trials, but commercialization is still several years down the road.
One major consideration for any company evaluating commercialization of a new biotech trait, Pawlik pointed out, is market size. With the entire North American sugarbeet area being about 1.2 million acres, the ability to recoup costs is much more difficult than in a crop like corn or soybeans. However, if countries like Russia, the Ukraine and China likewise were viable markets for this technology, commercialization challenges would be reduced. Western Europe, for the time being at least, is not as accepting of biotechnology.
In addition to the ongoing development of Roundup Ready varieties, Betaseed is currently working on four major biotech-centered projects with potential for the North American market, Kurt Wickstrom told the ASGA audience. One is transgenic rhizomania resistance. That takes on a special urgency, given the prospect of the virus overcoming the current resistance from traditional sources. A transgenic approach would provide a different mode of action and complete resistance. An “elite event selection” was made in 2012, Wickstrom noted; but commercialization is still several years away.
Betaseed also is developing winter beets. Again, Wickstrom pointed out, a winter beet would be planted in the fall, would have an extended vegetation period, a 20-30% increase in sugar yield, flowering control (no bolters), cold tolerance — and it would allow the beet sugar factories to undertake a longer processing campaign. Like Syngenta, the market introduction of Betaseed’s winter beet is still several years away.
The third major biotech focus for Betaseed is in fungal disease control — specifically, Cercospora leafspot. The market introduction of transgenic varieties resistant to Cercospora would probably not come until at least 2020.
Finally, Betaseed is working cooperatively with BASF on a “yield gene” project for sugarbeets. This biotech effort is focusing on the development of higher-yielding and drought-tolerant beet varieties, with an anticipated yield boost of around 15% over current varieties. Such varieties will, Wickstrom observed, enhance sugarbeet’s competitiveness with other crops. This project is still in the “proof of concept” stage, with expected commercialization several years off.
All this work takes time and money — a lot of time and a lot of money.
It can easily require a decade or more — and tens of millions of dollars — to take a new biotech trait from conception all the way to a farmer’s field. But the seed companies obviously believe that is where the future lies — not only their own future, but also that of the overall sugarbeet industry. Stay tuned! — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower