Plans to develop herbicide-tolerant sugar beet varieties by non-GM means have been announced, which promises to make new chemistry available to beet growers.

An agreement signed by KWS and Bayer CropScience sets out their intention to market an innovative system of weed control, involving the natural introduction of ALS-inhibitor herbicide tolerance into a range of sugar beet varieties, together with the development of specialist herbicides.

The partnership will allow both companies to contribute from their specific areas of expertise, with KWS breeding the varieties and Bayer CropScience committing to herbicide development.

According to Peter Hofmann, head of the sugar beet division at KWS, the plan is to introduce high-yielding varieties which are suitable for sustainable farming systems.

Work on the system began 11 years ago in 2001, he adds, after sugar beet plants with a naturally occurring change in an enzyme involved in the production of essential amino acids were identified.

“These plants were selected and used in a breeding programme, so that herbicide tolerance could be in-bred, without the need for GM.”

Similar to the Clearfield system, which already exists in oilseed rape, the tolerance trait introduced into the crop will allow the use of specific herbicides. These should control a wide range of weeds, without affecting the host crop.

At this stage, it is too early to say exactly which herbicides will be involved once the system comes to market, says Steve Patterson of Bayer CropScience.

“It is expected they will be ALS inhibitors, currently used in spring crops, that are already in our portfolio and may be registered in other crops and regions,” he says.

Getting the right balance between crop safety and weed control will be a key consideration, he adds, as will having the relevant advice available to accompany sales of the varieties.

“The use of such technology requires careful management and planning. There are implications for the rotation, which is why we will be working with appropriate stakeholders before any launches.”

Bayer has a record of producing market-leading sugar beet herbicides over many years, he adds. “But this development will allow the introduction of some new chemistry into the sugar beet crop, with all the associated benefits that come with such a development.”

The ability to use new active ingredients in sugar beet, controlling weeds with low rates and a reduced number of applications, shouldn’t be underestimated, he adds.

“It should help improve the competitiveness of the crop, make some of the agronomy more straightforward and bring environmental benefits.”

Both Mr Patterson and Dr Hofmann stress that growers are unlikely to see any herbicide-tolerant sugar beet varieties for some years. “It’s still early days. It won’t be until the end of the decade that we can expect to see commercial activity.”