Sorting Out The Facts Behind Stacks

genestacksFor over a decade, one choice that farmers consider when they select next year’s seed is whether to use a “stack.” Although every plant naturally contains thousands of genes and is a highly complex “stack,” in this article we will focus just on genes that have been inserted into a seed using biotechnology. The new genes, which typically come from another plant or microbe, are inserted in order to convey a special characteristic or trait, like the ability to resist certain insects. These biotechnology trait “stacks” are now widely planted around the world.

How are “stacks” made?

Seeds with biotechnology traits are now widely planted around the world, and many of those seeds have more than one biotechnology trait. By inserting more than one gene in a seed via biotechnology, farmers now have a novel means to combat insects and control weeds, using fewer or lower impact insecticides and herbicides. These plants, which can now better protect themselves, help farmers get more production on each acre being farmed, using no more fertilizer, often fewer pesticides and no tillage. Less tillage means soil erosion is greatly reduced.

Seed companies commonly develop stacks using two methods. One method is called a vector stack, in which two (or more) genes are connected together and then directly placed within the genome, just like creating a single trait. Companies can also develop stacks using traditional plant breeding methods where each parental line contains one or more previously incorporated traits. These parental lines can be crossed to create offspring that contain the combined traits from both parental lines. On average, companies typically invest between $50 million to $100 million and spend approximately 8 to 10 years in order to bring a biotechnology product from concept to reality. Additional time and expense is often required to produce breeding stacks.

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What do “stacks” do?

Biotechnology traits allow farmers to address old problems, such as insect damage that reduces yield, with new tools. Biotechnology traits can help farmers harvest more from each acre they are farming, and do so in a more sustainable way, for example using fewer pesticides and no tillage, which means less soil erosion. Stacking biotechnology traits can allow farmers to address multiple old problems (for example, both above ground insect pressure and below ground insect pressure) with two or more traits in the same seed.

But not every farmer faces the same set of problems. For instance, the insects damaging their crops may be primarily only above ground or below ground insects. Seed companies can use breeding stack techniques to create seed with only those biotechnology traits that address the regional problems the farmer faces. Other seed companies may choose to put all the traits into their seed but then adjust their prices in various regions so that they charge less for a trait where that trait is less likely to be needed. Some seed companies, including major seed companies, promote themselves as selling seed that contains fewer traits or no traits at all. It depends on what they think farmers want. Seed companies that offer the right products at the right prices will win more of the farmers’ business.

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How long have “stacks” been around?

In 1997, the first commercial biotech stack was introduced to farmers in cotton seed. The product provided in-seed protection against certain insect pests, (including the cotton bollworm, tobacco budworm and pink bollworm), and enabled the use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup® agricultural herbicides) over the top of the crop to control weeds but keep the cotton crop safe. Three years later, corn farmers welcomed the availability of the first stacked product in corn which provided protection against the corn borer and herbicide tolerance. In the years that followed, stacks have become a common choice of corn farmers. Soybean growers can also purchase stacked seed, for example, Pioneer has also recently announced plans to sell soybean seed that contains a stack of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® soybean trait with Pioneer’s high oleic oil quality trait, Plenish™.

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What are some of the key steps in bringing a “stack” to market?

Biotechnology traits are subject to government regulatory approval, and so are new combinations of biotechnology traits in many instances. The regulatory requirements vary based on what type of traits are being stacked (insect protected or other), where the crop is being grown and where the grain is expected to be exported. In many countries, new import clearances are required for grain harvested from stacked products even where the importation of grain from the individual products has previously been approved.
Before any stack is sold commercially, a responsible seed company does two critical things beyond meeting the regulatory requirements of the country in which the seed will be planted:

  1. Conduct extensive, multi-year field testing to ensure the in-field performance of the final stack product will be reliable for the farmer.
  2. Apply for and gain appropriate regulatory approvals (including those in foreign countries) for each new stack, so that famers that grow the crop have the ability to market their gain and are not adversely impacted by import or export restrictions. This means that each company creating a new stack must ensure they have developed the necessary regulatory package, complete timely submissions and gain the requisite authorizations.

It is important to note that seed companies that are interested in developing a stack product would need to work with trait developers to sign a licensing agreement and meet the necessary terms, in order to offer such a product. The steps outlined above are just two important reasons why trait developers are careful about what stacks can be made, who can make them, and under what conditions they can be made. Irresponsible stacking could harm farmers.

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Does Monsanto allow “stacking” by other Seed Providers?

Yes, we have granted broad stacking rights. Not every licensee has the same stacking rights, but trait developers that want to stack with Monsanto traits have several options for creating such products for their potential farmer customers. It all depends on their preference.

If a trait developer would prefer to work with someone besides Monsanto, there are at least two other companies licensed by Monsanto with broad stacking rights to Monsanto’s traits. A company could work with these parties in order to get other traits stacked with Monsanto’s basic corn and soybean traits. For example, we recently were able to publicly disclose the fact that Pioneer has broad stacking rights with our Roundup Ready traits in both corn and soy, and that the company can stack anything but another glyphosate tolerance trait with our Roundup Ready traits (e.g., the Plenish™/Roundup Ready combination noted above). DuPont currently offers another stack in the marketplace, Roundup Ready with STS® soybeans.

Finally, there are other traits to stack with besides Monsanto traits, and a trait developer could work with those other trait providers such as Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont to create a stacked product that does not contain any Monsanto traits.

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What “stacks” are available now?

Stacked traits are widely available. As an example, in 2009 farmers reported (click for table), that they were planting many kinds of stacked seeds developed by a variety of different seed producers.

Some of these stacked products do not contain a Monsanto trait, which demonstrates that Monsanto is not needed in order to create stacked products. Some of these stacked products do contain a Monsanto trait, which demonstrates that Monsanto has enabled stacks with competing traits. Trait developers and farmers have choice. They can choose Monsanto traits, they can choose traits from one or more other companies, or they can choose some combination of those traits. Which traits and trait combinations farmers will choose to plant will probably be based on the same criteria that have dictated seed choice for decades – which seeds will allow farmers to earn the most from the acres that they farm.

In the next 3-5 years, farmers are expected to have an even wider selection of stacks available to them. These stacks are expected to include new traits that offer farmers choices such as drought tolerance, new tolerance to additional herbicides and nutritional benefits such as healthier oils.

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Does it make sense for any genes to be stacked together?

Not all possible combinations of traits make sense. Only traits which offer an incremental benefit (complementary performance) make sense to stack. Stacking genes that convey the same trait with the same mode of action would offer no new value (duplicative trait) to farmers. Examples of complementary performance are stacking an herbicide tolerance trait and an insect protection trait, or placing two unique insect control genes together which have different modes of action to inhibit the development of insect resistance. Placing two different types of herbicide tolerance in the same seed gives farmers more weed control options; placing two different modes of the same herbicide tolerance offer no new benefits. This is why companies, including Monsanto, have not licensed or developed those types of duplicative trait stacks.

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Monsanto has more traits than anyone else—does this mean Monsanto controls the choice of stacks available to farmers?

No. As you can see in this table, there are a number of stacks available to farmers today. These products are sold by our competitors as well as independent seed companies. There are also additional choices under development. Given the variety of traits currently available, trait developers have many choices of traits, from several suppliers, one of which is Monsanto. Many single traits have also succeeded very well in the marketplace.

Monsanto believes cross-licensing traits (both out-licensing and in-licensing traits) is an important part of delivering wider choice to farmers. Today, Monsanto collaborates with many seed and technology developers, ranging from individual researchers to our competitors, so that stacks can be available to hundreds of U.S. seed companies.

NOTE: Roundup, Roundup Ready, YieldGard, YieldGard VT Rootworm/RR2, YieldGard VT Triple, Genuity, VT Triple PRO, SmartStax and Roundup Ready 2 Yield are trademarks of Monsanto Technology LLC. Plenish is a trademark of Pioneer Hi-Bred, International, Inc. STS is a registered trademark of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. LibertyLink is a registered trademark of Bayer CropScience Ag. Agrisure is a registered trademark of Syngenta Participations AG. Herculex is a registered trademark of Dow AgroSciences LLC. © 2009 Monsanto Co.

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