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Unlocking plant potential

By Staff | Apr 16, 2013

AUDIENCE MEMBERS listen to Jim Tobin, vice president of industry affairs for Monsanto, during a March presentation on the past and future of modern ag technology.

AMES-When Jim Tobin’s father was a young man, a 40-bushel-per-acre yield was fairly common on the family’s Taylor County farm in the early 1940s, when a good farmer could harvest about 100 bushels a day by hand.

Now that same land routinely produces 200 bushels per acre, Tobin said, thanks to the miracle of ag technology.

“It’s exciting how much new technology has made a positive difference just in one lifetime,” said Tobin, vice president of industry affairs at Monsanto Co., who recently presented the 2013 Carl and Marjory Hertz Lecture on Emerging Issues in Agriculture at Iowa State University.

This is also true in developing countries, said Tobin, an ISU graduate who spoke about “Agricultural Technology: Reflections on the Journey, Perspectives on the Future.”

In 2012, farmers in developing countries planted more acres to biotech crops than did farmers in other nations, said Tobin, who serves on the board of the U.S. Grains Council.

“It’s exciting how much new technology has made a positive difference just in one lifetime.” —Jim Tobin Monsanto vice president of industrial affairs

He cited the example of Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton, which provides farmers with in-seed insect protection and can increase yields up to 40 percent.

In India alone, more than 5 million famers are now using Bollgard technology, he said.

“I visited with the son of an Indian farmer who said Bollgard cotton helps his family make a lot more money,” Tobin said, “which has allowed him to go to college.”

Tobin noted that Indian farmers literally stand in line to get the Bollgard seed, which they plant on 1- to 10-acre farms where all the work is done by hand.

“It’s really exciting when you see the benefits of this technology and how it’s changing lives for the better around the world,” he said.

Extreme beans

The biotech revolution is just one of the megatrends reshaping agriculture today, aid Tobin, who cited global population growth, water availability, biofuels production, increased demand for protein and the need for global food security. “A wealthier, growing global population will seek improved diets and increased meat consumption, and farmers will need to sustainably intensify production to meet all this demand.”

Proven technologies, such the corn rootworm trait, are helping boost production, Tobin noted. “This trait is especially useful in dry years, when root damage can really hurt corn yields.

“By managing root pruning from rootworms, the plant doesn’t have to go to a lot of work to repair roots and can put more energy into growth and higher yields.”

In the quest for 300-bushel corn, biotech remains a key component, along with advanced agronomic practices ranging from precision seed placement to variable-rate fertility, said Tobin.

Options in Monsanto’s research-and-development pipeline include Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans, which provide tolerance to dicamba and glyphosate herbicides. This technology will offer farmers an additional tool for consistent, flexible weed control, especially tough-to-manage and glyphosate-resistant weeds.

“We could have this as early as 2014,” Tobin said, “and certainly by 2015.” Once approved, this will be the industry’s first biotech product with tolerance to both glyphosate and dicamba herbicides.

Vistive Gold soybeans, he said, are unique beans that contain 60 percent less saturated fat than other soybeans. Because of its composition, Vistive Gold soybean oil does not need to be hydrogenated, the process that creates trans fats.

This ability to bypass hydrogenation means oil from Vistive Gold soybeans eliminates or reduces the trans fats and saturated fat content of fried and baked foods, allowing consumers to enjoy more of the foods they love.

“Vistive Gold soybeans are creating a new standard in vegetable oil,” said Tobin.

The potential benefits don’t stop there, he said. As an industrial use, Vistive Gold soybean oil has the potential to be a feedstock for an entirely new class of bio-based synthetic oils that match or exceed the performance characteristics of the highest quality petroleum-based oils currently used in the automotive and industrial lubricant sectors.

Sharing knowledge

While ag innovation is poised for the kind of revolution that electronic technology spearheaded in the 1960s and 1970s, the opponents of technology aren’t going to go away, Tobin said.

“This is nothing new,” Tobin said. “When the steel plow was invented, some people were worried it would poison the soil.

“In the 1930s there were people who opposed the milking machine.”

Tobin challenged his audience to learn the facts and speak up for agriculture.

“You don’t have to be an expert to share what you know,” said Tobin, who recommends visiting the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and the Truth About Trade and Technology for more information.

“The 1 percent of us who know production agriculture need to talk to the 99 percent of the population who have little or no contact with production ag,” he said. “We must do this so farmers continue to have the freedom to operate.”

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