Bayer AG’s takeover of Monsanto has been beset by problems, and now a decades-long dominance of the $4 billion U.S. soybean seed market is under threat from rival Corteva Inc.
Bayer (BAYGn.DE) told Reuters it expects plantings of its genetically modified Xtend soybean seeds to flatline this year for the first time, after three years of strong growth since their launch with an accompanying weed-killer. It projects plantings in 2020 will stay at about 50 million acres, which was 66% of the American crop last year.
Meanwhile Corteva (CTVA.N), formed last year from the agricultural units of Dow Chemical and DuPont, expects its Enlist E3 seed to make up 20% of the U.S. crop in 2020, the first year it has been widely available.
The shift in the industry landscape is being driven by farmers like Ron Heck, in Perry, Iowa, who is ditching Bayer’s product and plans to go all-in on Corteva’s new soybean this spring, planting it across 2,000 acres.
Seeds are genetically modified to resist certain types of weed-killers and farmers must use only those herbicides to avoid damaging their soybeans. The problem for Bayer is that a herbicide used for Xtend soybeans, dicamba, is known to drift away and damage crops that are unprotected.
“There’s a considerable drag on enthusiasm to plant dicamba beans, particularly when Enlist beans are available and those problems all go away,” Heck said.
Bayer is not standing still, though, and the stage is set for an escalating arms race in the seed market for soybeans, the most valuable U.S. agricultural export.
The German company is planning to launch Xtend’s next generation seed, XtendFlex, which can be used with an additional herbicide. Ryan Rubischko, who leads Bayer’s soybean portfolio, said it would be launched in limited quantities this year, pending regulatory approvals.
Bayer, an agrichemicals and drugs titan, has been fighting costly lawsuits related to its $63 billion acquisition of American seed maker Monsanto in 2018.
Monsanto had dominated soybean sales since the 1990s with Roundup Ready, modified to withstand the weed-killer glyphosate. Some weeds have since developed resistance to glyphosate due to overuse, however, raising the need for soy that can resist alternative herbicides.
U.S. juries have separately ordered Bayer to pay billions of dollars over allegations glyphosate causes cancer, which the company denies.