Crop Tech Corner

Little-Known Small Grains GMOs, Drones Watching Wheat

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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(DTN photo illustration by Nick Scalise)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

THOSE OTHER GMOs

The rapid rise in the use of genetically modified (GM) corn, cotton and soybeans has been well documented in the U.S., in part thanks to agencies like USDA's Economic Research Service, which routinely assesses the status of these GM crops. Now the agency has published a report on the adoption of a lesser-studied group of GM crops, namely alfalfa, canola and sugarbeets. The report shows that while these crops had a slower rise to prominence, in part due to legal and regulatory issues, their adoption has risen rapidly in the past decade.

After it was deregulated in 1998, herbicide-tolerant canola was adopted on 70% of canola acres by 2001. Adoption continued to rise slowly but steadily, and by 2013, GM canola accounted for 95% of the 1.3 million U.S. acres of canola, according to the ERS report. Sugarbeets were later to the scene, but adoption was quite rapid. The first herbicide-tolerant varieties hit the market in 2008; by 2013, 99% of sugarbeets in 2013 were produced from GM seeds.

GM alfalfa has faced a very different road into U.S. fields. USDA first deregulated herbicide-tolerant alfalfa in 2005, but the trait was held up by legal challenges that stretched into 2011. Only in February of that year was GM alfalfa fully deregulated and significant plantings began that spring. By 2013, ERS estimates that 13% of U.S. alfalfa acres were planted with GM seed, despite showing a documented 17% increase in yields compared to non-GM alfalfa fields. A slower adoption rate is "to be expected," the ERS report noted, "because alfalfa is a perennial crop and only about one-seventh of the alfalfa acreage is newly seeded each year."

To produce this report, the ERS culled data primarily from the USDA's 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, as well as publications from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) and the 2012 Census of Agriculture. You can see the full report here: http://bit.ly/….

SPYING ON WHEAT FROM ON HIGH

Wheat plants in Kansas will soon be under the watchful eye of drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded a three-year grant worth nearly $1 million to Kansas State University researchers to use UAVs to improve the speed and effectiveness of wheat breeding.

Successful plant breeding involves scrutinizing DNA to identify certain plant traits in the lab and then heading to the field to see how those traits play out in the resulting wheat plant. The latter can be time-consuming, noted KSU agronomist Jesse Poland, who is leading the project. "Perhaps the greatest bottleneck currently in plant breeding and genetics is effectively generating precision measurements of plant characteristics in the field," he said in the KSU press release on the NIFA grant. That's where UAVs can help. Poland and his colleagues will use their sky-high view to collect millions of images over the course of a wheat trial growing season.

The result will be an enormous database of physical characteristics (the phenotype) of tens of thousands of wheat breeding lines. Poland hopes the project will help breeders push the fast-forward button on varietal development. "We provide the breeders with the tools to look through many more candidate varieties and increase the chances of finding ones that are really excellent and can become the next best varieties to release to farmers."

See the KSU press release here: http://bit.ly/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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(PS/AG)

Emily Unglesbee