In his book, The Next Economy, Paul Hawken writes that goods contain information, in terms of their design, engineering or utility. Shirts have more "information" than cotton cloth, for example, and cloth has more "information" than cotton bales.
By Hawken's measure, crops have gotten steadily smarter in recent years. For example, growers can now choose corn hybrids that tolerate herbicides, defend themselves against gray leaf spot and other diseases, and resist corn borer by at least two different modes of action.
Producers have quickly accepted problem-solving traits, and want more of them. In 1998, Dekalb introduced Roundup Ready hybrids; farmers planted nearly a million acres to them. This year, Roundup Ready corn acreage more than doubled, to 2.3 million acres.
"Grower acceptance of new technology has been phenomenal," says John Foster, University of Nebraska entomologist.
Nebraska has a mix of soil types and growing conditions that make a great proving ground for new technology.
"We do a lot of irrigating with center pivots," adds Foster. "Every time the pivot goes around, the grower knows exactly what his costs are. Farmers here can readily evaluate what new technology is doing for them."
Growers in areas hard hit by European corn borer quickly adopted Bt hybrids. Now plant breeders are aiming their genetic arsenals at corn rootworm, a pest that costs U.S. growers $1 billion annually. None too soon, say growers, who are seeing rootworm get harder and harder to control.
In the continuous-corn region of Nebraska, corn rootworm has developed resistance to some organophosphate insecticides. On the other side of the Corn Belt, a variant strain of rootworm lays eggs in soybean roots to wait for corn the following year. This strain of rootworm, first noticed in east-central Illinois, now has spread to Indiana, western Ohio and southern Michigan.
Several companies now have rootworm-resistant genetic material in the final stages of development.
"We're seeing better protection with our in-plant rootworm protection than with standard insecticide regimens," says Monsanto's Randy Krotz. "We conducted field trials this year, and this trait gives protection against western, southern and northern strains of rootworm. We're looking at a limited launch (of rootworm-protected corn) in 2001.
"The first year, seed volume will be limited, and the technology may not be incorporated in some regionally adapted hybrids," Krotz adds. "But we intend to license this technology broadly, to a lot of companies."
Close behind is a joint effort by Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow AgroSciences (which acquired Mycogen Seeds last year). The Pioneer-Dow field tests this year showed corn plants with bred-in rootworm protection far exceed the results of chemical insecticides in controlling corn rootworm. If regulatory reviews go as planned, the new trait could be incorporated in Pioneer and Mycogen hybrids by 2002.
"We haven't seen anything yet," predicts Garst's Jeff Lacina. "This technology is barely out of the Model-T stage. We will see more and more genetic crop developments in the next few years."