Cotton growers wait in anticipation as major changes sweep seed industry

A little over a year ago, Monsanto announced its intent to purchase Delta and Pine Land Corporation for $1.5 billion, and when the dust finally settled in June 2007, the deal was done.

The arrangement brought D&PL, the world's largest cotton seed/variety company, under the umbrella of the world's most powerful cotton biotechnology company, but requirements imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice significantly affect the entire landscape of the cotton seed business.

Terms of agreement

As expected, Monsanto was required to sell its Stoneville interests, but stipulations of the deal went beyond that. For $310 million, Bayer CropScience (FiberMax Cotton Seed) purchased not only the Stoneville picker cotton seed division with its varieties, germplasm, facilities, equipment, and personnel, but it also received access to several important D&PL breeding lines and the Monsanto genetic marker library.

The stripper cotton NexGen brand of Stoneville was purchased by Americot, a Texas-based company.

In addition to divesting the Stoneville assets, Monsanto was required to maintain a favorable license agreement with these companies in the use of Monsanto traits. Syngenta's Bt-based VipCot lines already being advanced by D&PL were made available for return to Syngenta, while early efforts to incorporate DuPont herbicide technology into D&PL germplasm appear to have not been far enough along to warrant much consideration. Bayer is also afforded some special considerations on existing Cotton States varieties.

The Cotton States program is a vehicle for public (university and USDA) and private breeders to forward competitive lines to Monsanto for insertion of technology traits (for example, insect management and herbicide resistance). The aim is to have transgenic offerings of varieties initially bred by public and private breeders.

While there are few commercial offerings presently marketed from that program, it has yet to provide competitive varieties for our region.

Monsanto is not sitting still. While most would recognize and appreciate Monsanto's huge past commitment (and success) to R&D in cotton biotechnology, the new Monsanto appears to be even more aggressive in terms of germplasm and cultivar development.

There are reports that company breeding programs have been given the charge and resources to double their efforts.

Vigorous investment into breeding will no doubt yield better products for cotton growers. “Bigger, better, faster” is the anticipated outcome of the acquisition.

For many producers, the race to replace DP 555 BG/RR is on … and the stakes are high.

Interestingly, in the Southern U.S., the Monsanto business, which now spans cotton, corn, soybeans, Roundup, Bollgard, etc., will be known as the Delta and Pine Land Business Unit. As technical field personnel who formerly focused on cotton assume responsibility for every product under the Monsanto brand, there will be a challenge to NOT lose expertise and service on cotton.

Big investments

Bayer CropScience has made significant investments to cotton breeding in the Southeast. They've had programs in Georgia and the Carolinas for several years now.

Unfortunately, their only real, sustained successes thus far have been in Texas. While Texas has traditionally included a “saved seed” component and thus less annual seed sales than acres planted, success in a 6-million acre market is big success. It provides fuel to fund national expansion.

Bayer's commitment to cotton is evident. They have been and will be a significant player in cotton cultivar development. In past months they've purchased market potential in California by acquiring CPCSD and now Stoneville in the Mid-South.

In addition, FiberMax breeders should be “licking their chops” with access to the D&PL germplasm that came with the deal. At some point, these efforts should yield something good for us, shouldn't they?

Some have suggested we are now in a cotton variety duopoly, a market that has two dominant players Monsanto/D&PL and Bayer/FiberMax. That view discounts the potential of Dow Agrosciences PhytoGen cotton. In Georgia, they have arisen as a viable competitor in the alternatives to varieties other than DP 555 BG/RR.

The performance of Dow's Widestrike technology is superior to Bollgard, not quite as good as Bollgard II, but priced competitively with Bollgard. The growing concerns with glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth coupled with the (limited) tolerance of WideStrike varieties to glufosinate adds to the utility of PhytoGen's WR and WRF offerings.

Of course, the hairy nature of some PhytoGen varieties makes them more susceptible to whitefly problems, a localized but serious issue in south Georgia in 2007. PhytoGen has made a good initial splash.

The challenge is to have a steady pipeline of new varieties that constantly get better in terms of yield and, hopefully, fiber quality. Can such a newcomer deliver?

EPA granted re-registration of single-gene Bt cotton technology in Bollgard cotton in July 2006 with an expiration date of September 2009. At face value, that means that Bollgard/Roundup Ready varieties will not be available to farmers past the 2009 season.

It also means that growers will have to plant varieties other than DP 555 BG/RR, a remarkable, highly indeterminate, full-season variety that has dominated our production since 2004 because it yields so well.

It is highly, highly unlikely there will be a retreat to herbicide-resistant only or conventional varieties would then be forced to choose among the newer technology offerings, including Bollgard II/Roundup Ready Flex (BII/RF), WideStrike/Roundup Ready (WR), or WideStrike/Roundup Ready Flex (WRF).

Monsanto has indicated that Bollgard II varieties will be available only with Roundup Ready Flex technology, while Dow expects to offer Widestrike with either Roundup Ready or Roundup Ready Flex.

The simple answer to the question, “What's next behind DP 555 BG/RR?” is that there is no clear winner when we consider BII/RF, WR and WRF varieties.

To date, most of the newest BII/RF and RF varieties yield significantly less than DP 555 BG/RR. Perhaps data from the 2007 crop will uncover the next “race horse,” but presently, nobody knows which, where, or whose is the best candidate.

Step backward

If we are compelled to go forward without an option that is clearly as good as or superior to DP 555 BG/RR, it will be a step backward for us in terms of profit.

Growers would likely pay more for the superior technology but make less cotton and less profit.

Technically, resistance management is a good, strong argument for conversion to two-gene Bt technology in Bollgard II, WideStrike, or similar technologies and doing away with single-gene Bollgard.

Resistance is a problem that once encountered there is no starting over. So, the conversion to the two-gene Bt products is a good one for all growers, but it will be painful if there is no good replacement for the highest yielding variety Georgia cotton growers have ever planted.

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