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Biotech Companies Race for Drought-Tolerant Crops

Date: 15-Jan-08
Country: US
Author: Carey Gillam

But inside a laboratory, a warm, man-made drought is in force, curling the leaves of rows of fledgling corn plants as million-dollar machines and scientists in white coats monitor their distress.

This work is part of a global race pitting Pioneer, Monsanto Co and other biotech companies against each other in a race to develop new strains of corn and other crops that can thrive when water is in short supply.

"Equipping plants to be able to maintain productivity in the driest years is of critical importance," said Bill Niebur, global vice president for research and development at Pioneer, a division of DuPont. "Drought is a global problem and we recognize the threat that comes with climate change. We've got our top talent in our organization working on this."

This line of research has been underway for years, but it has taken on added urgency as scientists predict a trend of worsening drought and hotter temperatures around the globe.

Water shortages are already costing billions of dollars a year in crop shortfalls around the world, and are likely to grow more costly, according to academic and government forecasters.

Two years ago, drought ate into corn production in France and Spain so severely that analysts pegged it as the worst in fifty years.

US corn production was down 5 percent because of drought in 2006.

In Australia, where drought has persistent since 2002, some wheat farmers last year reported failing to harvest a crop for the first time in 40 years.

And in Argentina, which grows about 22 million tonnes of corn a year, drought has delayed planting of the current crop.

Last December, Jacques Diouf, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that people were already starting to go hungry in poor countries because hotter weather was shrinking the food supply and pushing up prices.

MARKET OPPORTUNITY

Biotechnology companies are using both conventional breeding and genetic engineering to mold climate change into a market opportunity.

Monsanto, the world leader in genetically engineered crops, is doing field trials in dry parts of Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Switzerland's Syngenta AG has a variety of research sites across the United States.

Corn is the first focus for all the companies because not only is it a key raw material for a multitude of processed foods, but also it is a major animal feed and it is in growing demand to make ethanol for use in alternative fuels.

The world grows nearly 800 million tonnes of corn a year, with about 40 percent of the world's suppy grown in the United States and 19 percent in China.

St. Louis-based Monsanto, which spends about 10 percent of its annual sales on research and development, or about US$2 million a day, sees drought-tolerance as a key area, spokeswoman Sara Duncan said.

"Water is one of the biggest limiting factors in agriculture," Duncan said. "In the future, climate change does mean there are going to be more droughts."

OVERCOMING OPPOSITION

The biotech companies acknowledge that opposition to genetically modified crops remains strong in some countries, especially in Europe, where opponents have long dubbed such crops "Frankenfoods."

But the success of genetic modification that has turned out corn that resists pests and is immune to weedkiller, along with similar modifications in soybeans and other crops, has helped wear down opposition in recent years.

Last year more than 73 percent of US corn acres were planted with biotech varieties, according to US Department of Agriculture. In 2006, biotech crop acreage globally reached 252 million acres in 22 countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

And given global climate concerns and the needs of a hungry populace, biotech companies believe a drought-tolerant corn could further help win over opponents.

"This is a more cons

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