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Biotechnology - The Great Equalizer for Sunflower?

Tuesday, August 1, 2000
filed under: Utilization/Trade

The fact that there are no transgenic sunflower hybrids currently in the marketplace may present some commercial benefits to confection and oil sunflower producers in the short-term. Over the long-term, however, sunflower industry leaders say that biotechnology will be needed to help sunflower compete for acreage with other oilseed crops which already possess genetically enhanced traits.

Currently, "NuSun" sunflower - developed with standard hybrid breeding methods, not bioengineering - is the hottest trend going in the U.S. sunflower industry.

Sunflower and snack food industry experts suggest NuSun probably would not be gaining as much popularity had it been a bioengineered product.

At the same time, however, sunflower is losing acreage to other rowcrops such as soybeans and canola. Numerous varieties of these cropspossess bio-engineered resistance to glyphosate (Roundup). Many producers find hybrids resistant to glyphosate easier to manage, with less chemical usage and better crop quality and yields, in numerous instances. Meanwhile, conventionally bred sunflower hybrids have fewer weed control options and are vulnerable to insect problems and disease - including Sclerotinia.

Also referred to as white mold, Sclerotinia has chased sunflower out of some production areas. Losses from Sclerotinia in 1999 were estimated at nearly $100 million in North Dakota alone. Sclerotinia head rot affected more than 80 percent of sunflower fields in eastern North Dakota last year, reaching epidemic proportions not seen since 1986, according to North Dakota State University. Viable sclerotia bodies can remain in the ground for eight years or longer. A Sclerotinia-resistant sunflower hybrid would help alleviate the resulting complications.

"We would estimate that about 25 percent of our acreage has been converted to GMO crops in the last few years," says Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. "This is largely due to weed control considera-tions. A Roundup Ready' crop is a good choice in a field with a history of weed problems." Statistics lend credence to that estimate. In 1995, just prior to when bioengineered crops began to explode on U.S. acreage, slightly more than four million acres of U.S. cropland were planted to sunflower. About 600,000 were confections, and approximately 3.4 million consisted of oils.

This year, a total of 2.8 million acres of sunflower were planted in the United States, with about 500,000 being confections and 2.3 million being oil-type sunflower. It's estimated there are about 65 million acres of genetically enhanced crops grown in the nation this year.

"As the industry determines whether GMO (genetically modified organism)

is for sunflower, we have to consider other crop options that farmers have. There may be trouble keeping sunflower as a viable option for producers without biotech-nology," says John Soper, sunflower research director for Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Biotech Sunflower R&D

Soper says there are numerous studies, tests and regulatory hurdles to overcome before any bioengineered crop can be commercialized. Many factors must be analyzed and reported. For example, the research developer must indicate the source of the gene, submit data proving whether it could be toxic or cause allergies, and whether it will affect

crop yield or other plant characteristics and attributes.

"If we put a transgene into sunflower, we would also need to prove whether it would change the composition of oil or meal or other factors," according to Soper.

Environmental safety would also need to be proven. "Since sunflower is open-pollinated and can cross pollinate with wild sunflower and related species, that puts an extra regulatory burden on sunflower," the Pioneer official notes. "We feel responsible for generating data that show if and when [sunflower is commercially bioengineered], there will be no negative impact on the ecology of wild sunflower." Studies to

that effect are already under way.

Comprehensive safety assessments of an introduced plant gene are required by several U.S. government agencies, including USDA, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration. Soper says the approval process can take a minimum of four years to complete and cost more than $2 million to introduce a single trait.

The Answer to Sclerotinia?

A Sclerotinia-resistant sunflower would be very attractive to farmers. The planting of broadleaf crops susceptible to the disease has been expanding in the Upper Midwest. With a Sclerotinia-resistant sunflower hybrid, rotations might be altered to allow 'flowers to be planted in a closer sequence, says NSA's Kleingartner, and it might allow rotation of sunflower with other broadleaf crops. "It would give farmers a great sense of assurance when planting sunflower that this yield-robbing disease would not be a concern," Kleingartner indicates. "Quality factors affecting confection sunflower resulting from Sclerotinia head rot would be eliminated. A Sclerotinia-resistant sunflower would be a major event."

Pioneer is collaborating with Advanta (whose U.S.-based entity is Interstate Seed) on development of a Sclerotinia-resistance gene, says John Soper. However, a sunflower hybrid bioengineered with Sclerotinia resistance probably won't be on the commercial market for another half decade. "Achieving Sclerotinia resistance will most likely be achieved by combining transgenic resistance enhancement with natural tolerance,"

Soper explains. The gene that's being researched for Sclerotinia resistance is an oxalate oxidase gene, isolated from Pioneer wheat variety 2548.

Would regulators accept it? NSA's Kleingartner says concerns about pollen transfer to the native wilds should not be a concern. Would consumers accept it in Europe and other countries? Obviously the jury will be out on that question for some time. It could be argued that the consumer would be benefiting by a higher quality product without the use

of a pesticide, Kleingartner points out. "That should sell with consumers, but as (sunflower researchers) have indicated, we are several years from introduction. Everyone is hoping that the biotech issue will have subsided considerably by then," he says.

Pioneer is also working collaboratively with Dow AgroSciences to develop genetic resistance to Argentine Looper, a leaf-feeding sunflower pest in Argentina.

Publically available information from CONABIA (Argentina's National Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biosafety) indicates research also has been conducted in that country on glyphosate-tolerant sunflower. Industry experts say a hybrid with bioengineered Sclerotinia resistance may be easier to introduce - from a regulatory standpoint - as opposed to glyphosate resistance, due to less concern over out-crossing with wild species.

Developing Market Channels

Robert Whyte of Cargill Processing, West Fargo, N.D., believes biotechnology is here to stay. "The consumer will make the decision, but ultimately we will go in that direction," he ventures.

With bio-engineered sunflower several years away from commercialization,

Whyte believes the timing is right for the sunflower industry to build processing and marketing channels for genetically enhanced sunflower and nontransgenic sunflower - and to answer key systematic questions: "Can grain handlers identity-preserve seed and oil? At first blush you might say 'no problem,' but there would be increased costs. Will the market pay for GMO-free sunflower? Right now, the sunflower market is all

GMO-free in the U.S. So the market may say, 'Why pay a premium if I can

get it free now?' "

U.S. confection sunflower production is split almost evenly, with about half used in the domestic market and half being exported. "If we had GMO sunflower for the domestic market, I don't think we'd have a problem. [But] it would be different with exports," suggests Bob Majkrzak, president and CEO of Red River Commodities, Fargo, N.D. Majkrzak says the attitude is negative toward crop bioengineering at European industry

trade shows where his company has participated. "We keep assuring them we don't have transgenic sunflower," he reports.

Majkrzak agrees that over the long run, however, biotechnology has the promise of stabilizing sunflower acreage. "I fear having no acres more than I do [the possible market repercussions] of GMO," which he says could help solve problems that the industry faces now. "It would help assure consistency of the product we could market. It would help the

Sclerotinia problem. It would help weed control in confection sunflower, including cocklebur. It would help with insects. No one would appreciate that problem in a salad bar."

Majkrzak agrees with Cargill's Whyte that the different market segments must be factored into bioengineered sunflower market decisions. "About half of sunflower goes to crushing, 25 percent is confection, and about 25 percent of confection goes to the

birdseed market. I don't think birds will complain about GMO."

Larry Kleingartner believes there is enough sophistication in the marketplace to manage bioengineered sunflower. Kleingartner says NSA will likely establish policy recommendations on biotech sunflower this fall. He says the association supports biotech sunflower research and development. At the same time, if a bioengineered sunflower hybrid was ready for commercialization right now, he would urge the industry to

differentiate it in the marketplace.

Timely Management

John Riley, a Cresbard, S.D., producer and National Sunflower Association board member, believes glyphosate resistance would be a big plus for sunflower production. "It would make the window of opportunity for timely treatments a lot wider," Riley states.

Riley says there's a public perception that genetically enhanced foods are not safe. "If there was science that said this is a danger to our families, we wouldn't use them. But the fact is, they're the most highly tested foods in history," Riley observes. "We have good science. What we do have is a perception problem."

Riley believes opposition to biotech-nology is, to a certain extent, used by some as a trade barrier. He points to a recent Roper study indicating that 73 percent of consumers in the European Union are willing to accept GMO technology if it results in reduced pesticide usage. "You don't read that in the newspapers," Riley says. "GMO protesters can sway opinion and create doubt. What we need are stars like Wilfred Brimley with kids standing in a sunflower field saying, 'If you want to eat and survive, it's the right thing that these GMOs be used.' "

Bob Majkrzak believes the sunflower industry needs to press on with biotech-nology research and development. By the time a hybrid is commercialized, the controversy over the technology may resolve itself. "I bet in five to 10 years, we won't be arguing about this anymore," he concludes. - Tracy Sayler

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