By Jennifer M. Latzke
In 1996, soybean farmers saw the first commercial release of a new soybean variety that would change agriculture. Using the science of biotechnology, researchers had isolated a trait in the genetic code of the soybean plant that offered resistance to the chemical herbicide glyphosate.
Those first Roundup Ready soybeans ushered in a whole new era in production agriculture. For the first time soybean farmers had in-seed herbicide tolerance to Roundup, which had been used as a pre-plant burndown treatment on soybean acres since the 1970s. And, through the first decade of the 21st century, farmers have seen a boom in Roundup Ready crops, from soybeans, to canola, cotton, sugar beets, corn and more.
History of weed control
Many farmers still remember the days of mechanical and cultural weed control in soybeans. Some of the first chemical herbicides were introduced in the 1960s--Chloramben, Metribuzin, and Alachlor to name a few. All were applied before or during planting, though. There wasn't an effective way to control weeds in soybean fields other than mechanical cultivation after the plants emerged and before they grew a shading canopy.
But then, postemergence grass and broadleaf herbicides came onto the scene. In 1988, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 44 percent of soybean acres were treated with postemergence herbicides, and that figure jumped to 72 percent by 1994. Applying over-the-top weed control during the growing season increased the use of conservation tillage practices and narrow row spacing, thus increasing yields and further controlling weeds.
There was still a problem, though. There was no single postemergence herbicide that would control both grasses and broadleaves. Farmers using a postemergence herbicide program would have to make two passes over the field to control weeds. Some of those first postemergence herbicides were of the same mode of action, causing some weeds to develop resistance. And, some of those first herbicides caused damage on crops following soybeans in a rotation.
But then came the Roundup Ready soybean with a genetic resistance to Roundup herbicide, which had been used since the 1970s as a pre-plant burndown treatment. Farmers had one-pass weed control capability, they could still practice conservation tillage and narrow row spacing, and it didn't have carryover restrictions, which offered farmers options for rotations.
With this new biotechnology came responsibility. Farmers now had to navigate plant variety protection agreements, patents on genetics, technology agreements and more.
Now, as the patent for the RR1 trait in soybeans nears its expiration, farmers will have to learn a new skill--navigating the waters of generic biotechnology traits.
The year 2014
In just four short years, the patent Monsanto holds on the Roundup Ready trait in soybeans will expire, the first biotech trait of its kind to go off patent. Jim Tobin, vice president of Industry Affairs for Monsanto, explained the company has been looking toward this deadline for many years, planning how to serve their soybean farmer customers after patent expiration.
"(It) began many years ago as we knew that in order to be able to serve our farmer customers after patent expiration, we would need to invent a better product," Tobin said. "So our work on the development of Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield has been ongoing and a major focus. As the RR1 trait goes off patent, we will be competing with a trait that is 'free' to seed companies and farmers. Since RR1 is the first biotech trait to go off patent, we have worked with stakeholders in the soybean industry to make sure that a clear path is available for those who may choose to continue to work with this trait."
As holders of the first biotech trait to go off patent, Monsanto finds itself in a unique leadership position among its colleagues in biotech trait development.
"When a patent expires, it does not create any new work with the patent office," Tobin said. "However, there are legal issues to consider given that the seed variety that carries the biotech trait may have another patented biotech trait present or may have other intellectual property protection." An example would be a seed with stacked trait technology.
"We have worked to make it clear what we will be doing relative to the patent expiration, but also reminding farmers to check with their seed supplier to make sure they fully understand any other intellectual property rights that may be included with the seed variety they are purchasing," Tobin added. Part of Monsanto's strategy is to work with BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the trade group that represents Monsanto and other biotech trait developers. Additionally, Monsanto is consulting grower groups and exporters so that they can consider the many angles of this process.
"Producers and exporters told us that they wanted to be sure that U.S. export markets would continue to accept the RR1 trait as long as farmers continued to use it," Tobin said. For example, not all farmers are ready to move on to the next generation of biotechnology traits, such as Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield from Monsanto. Therefore the company is committed to providing export regulatory approval for RR1 soybeans through 2021, seven years beyond patent expiration.
Monsanto is also working with BIO to work out an agreement that could maintain export market approvals for other biotech traits that will be going off patent in the coming years, or simply an agreement that such traits would no longer require additional regulatory support once their patents expire.
Maintaining international regulatory approval for the RR1 and other biotech traits is vital to U.S. producers who depend on international markets for their soybeans. In 2010, USDA reported farmers planted 78.9 million acres of soybeans, and Monsanto estimates 90 percent of those acres are planted with Roundup Ready soybeans. USDA's Economic Research Service estimated in its July 12 Oil Crops Outlook that 2010 production is on pace to reach 3.345 billion bushels, 1.37 billion of which will be exported.
The RR1 soybean trait is also an important part of many different variety development programs, and Monsanto has licensed different entities to use its trait over the years. Monsanto announced the RR1 soybean trait will be available royalty-free to universities and others when the patent expires at the close of the 2014 planting season. Starting with the 2015 planting season farmers can also replant Roundup Ready soybeans saved from their previous harvest for use on their own fields. This path to allow generic versions of the RR1 trait will set the tone when other patented genetic traits lose their protection in later years.
Tomorrow's traits today
In 14 years the biotechnology field has exploded with new traits announced each year, and it began with Roundup Ready soybeans. Since that first crop in 1996, Monsanto licensed the RR1 trait to many different biotech developers for insertion into many different branded seed varieties. Practically overnight Monsanto's name became synonymous with biotech trait development.
"It has helped define who we are as a company," Tobin said. Roundup Ready was one of the most rapidly adopted technologies in the history of U.S. agriculture, he added. Roundup Ready was quickly joined by Liberty Link technology from Bayer CropScience. Monsanto then release Roundup Ready 2 genetics, the first second-generation trait product released. And now, farmers have a gamut of choices of biotech seeds that offer insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, all in an effort to boost yields on reduced acreage.
"The ability to spray Roundup over the top of a soybean field is considered the cornerstone of an effective weed management system in soybeans, and I think it will remain that way for years to come," Tobin said. "It's a simple and efficient way to control hundreds of weeds." Additionally, the RR1 trait has been used as a genetic marker for identifying different breeding lines.
And, just because the RR1 soybean trait is going off patent in four years doesn't mean farmers will have to wait for the next generation of biotech traits. Monsanto recently launched Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield that offers improved yield opportunities, Tobin said. "We've just announced that we've submitted the regulatory package for dicamba tolerance in soybeans to the USDA," he added. "Pending regulatory approval, this product is expected to be stacked with Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield for an efficient and comprehensive weed management system in soybeans with greater yield opportunity. Beyond that, we have additional genes focused solely on delivering greater yield, and others that can improve the health profiles of foods we like to eat. Vistive Gold and omega-3 soybeans will give food companies new options to meet consumer demand for healthier foods."
It was one little genetic tweak, that Roundup Ready trait that first debuted 14 years ago. But, it had the power to change an industry.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Path to patent expiration
While Monsanto continues to develop its strategy for handling the patent expiration on its Roundup Ready soybean trait, it has announced several decisions regarding the collection of royalties and its intellectual property protection.
--Monsanto is amending all Roundup Ready soybean trait licenses to extend through the final patent expiration. Therefore, the last crop year in which Monsanto will collect royalties on the trait technology is 2014.
--Licensees will not be obligated to destroy or return seed after the Roundup Ready soybean trait licenses expire.
--Monsanto will not use variety patents against U.S. farmers who save varieties containing the Roundup Ready trait for planting on their own farms after expiration of the trait patent. Farmers should check with their seed suppliers for any other policies regarding soybean varieties developed by other companies that contain the RR1 trait.
--Monsanto will maintain full global regulatory support for RR1 through 2021, allowing grain from the 2014 crop to be sold and processed. Monsanto will continue to monitor and assess the planned use of the RR1 technology beyond 2021, working with stakeholders on extension of regulatory support as needed.
--Seed companies can continue selling RR1 technology in their varieties after the patent expires as well as license the Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield technology.
--Because many Roundup Ready varieties are also covered by variety patents and plant variety protection certificates, Monsanto will continue to enforce its intellectual property rights. These include variety patents and the commercial and developmental use of patented Roundup Ready varieties after the patent on the RR1 trait expires.