After the patent on one of the most popular versions of genetically engineered soybeans expired this year, U.S. universities are creating new generic GMO soybean varieties, many of which are designed to guard against specific, local pests.
Ninety percent of soybean seeds planted in the U.S. are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. Often that's glyphosate, the weed-whacking ingredient in Roundup, developed by the behemoth seed company Monsanto.
The glyphosate-resistant trait transformed U.S. agriculture when the first generation of Roundup was introduced. Twenty years later, the patent for that technology has expired, leaving the door open for universities to run with the technology and layer seeds with more protections.
At the Bay Farm Research Facility just outside of Columbia, Mo., University of Missouri soybean breeder Andrew Scaboo grows test plots of soybean varieties.
"A research plot could be anything from one plant to hundreds of thousands of plants in eight rows, hundreds of feet long and everything in between," he said.
Researchers here have 50 acres of fields to test different combinations of traits in soybean plants – all with the goal of creating a variety that can stand up to disease threats, yield strong numbers and enhance the quality of the beans.
On a recent fall day, he pointed out a row of soybean plants incorporating the glyphosate-tolerant technology used in Roundup Ready One plants.
"This is plot 123 out of thousands of plots we have out here," he said.
Monsanto is pushing new generations of seeds, called Roundup Ready Two, touting improved technology for farmers. But the original Roundup Ready trait is still valuable to farmers, Scaboo said.
Scaboo and other researchers are breeding soybean plants that can survive diseases while maintaining high yield numbers.
"Then we can incorporate the Roundup Ready 0ne technology in just a few years in that same variety through backcrossing," he said. "And that's because the Roundup Ready One technology is controlled by one gene."
I think most farmers, the first thing they look for is the product yield. If it happens to have a trait in it they like and it's an advantage for them, that's great.
Imagine the fancy multi-vitamin you buy at the store going generic. Then your local university takes that pill and adds-in an extra vitamin that's particularly important for people that live in your region. The University of Missouri soybean seeds aim to guard against nematodes, sudden death syndrome and frogeye leaf spots. Iowa researchers, for instance, might target different soybean diseases specific to their state.
Will They Buy It?
But will farmers take a risk and buy these off-brand seeds with the Roundup Ready technology?
"It remains to be seen,"said Nancy Parker, who licenses new plant science technologies at the University of Missouri. "I think most farmers, the first thing they look for is the product yield. If it happens to have a trait in it they like and it's an advantage for them, that's great."
While under patent, Roundup Ready seeds ran between $55 and $70 a bag, according to Randy Baker, a seed salesman in northeast Missouri. But these university-developed seeds are generic versions so they're generally cheaper. University of Arkansas' versions are going for less than half the original price.
This is the perfect time for generics, Baker said. With low returns on commodity prices the past two years, farmers are looking to cut input costs. Baker said he sold out of Roundup Ready One last year and had customers calling as early as August asking about prices for 2016.
"I never saw that before," he said. "But there was a lot of them. In fact we got our pricing earlier than we've ever got it before. They're very rigorously looking and searching for ways to cut farm expense."
Baker said he's upped his stock by 75 percent in anticipation of next year. With university seeds entering the market at discount rates, he said he expects to see farmers trying the new products.
As older seeds come off patent, farmers do have concerns that the original pesticide technology may not be as effective against weeds that build up resistance – so-called superweeds that are difficult and costly to kill. Researchers like Missouri's Scaboo are looking into developing seeds compatible with multiple weed-killers
"The days of having a variety that only one mode of action for herbicide use for resistance to herbicide are probably gone in the next five years," Scaboo said.
As threats from weeds continue to evolve, Scaboo said, farmers tools do, too.