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Monsanto to test seed that might beat droughtqrcode

May. 25, 2011

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May. 25, 2011

No farmer would ever plant a crop hoping it doesn't rain at the most critical time for the plants to have water, right? Wrong.

That's the position that biotech giant Monsanto Co. is in this year as it tries to get ready to launch a new line of corn seed that's genetically engineered to tolerate drought, a new landmark in agricultural biotechnology.

Monsanto hopes to bring the seed to market in 2013, but a series of rainy summers in the western Plains starting in 2008 has plagued field trials. The company needs the trials to prove to farmers that the seeds will make enough difference to merit buying. The results made public so far have been mixed.

"We had about three good years where we could do field trials in Kansas. It was nice and dry," said Bill Reeves, regulatory affairs manager for Monsanto. "And then it started raining."

Successful drought-tolerant seed varieties could burnish the biotechnology industry's image. The industry has been struggling to gain public acceptance for genetically modified food in Europe, Africa and other regions. Monsanto, DuPont and other companies are eager to show that genetically modified crops can have benefits beyond just saving farmers on pesticide costs or making it easier to control weeds - the main benefits of the products now on the market.

"Obviously, if we can protect farmers in times of drought or in areas where there is less water and still get good yields, that's going to be beneficial," said Greg Jaffe, who follows agricultural biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Monsanto provided the genetic material it's now testing, known as MON 87460, to a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce drought-tolerant corn varieties. The seed is supposed to be provided royalty-free to poor African farmers.

The corn contains a bacterium gene that allows the plant to survive on less water during the critical period when it's flowering.

The Obama administration, which has been promoting the benefits of biotech crops in Africa, is proposing to clear the crop for commercialization in this country.

But the product's commercial success, Monsanto knows, will depend how well it performs for farmers. That's not clear yet.

The idea is to reduce the yield loss of the crop during drought. In trials that the company conducted to gather data for federal regulators, the biotech crop's performance has varied widely in comparison to conventional hybrids. In some cases, the crop has yielded up to 35 percent more. But in some cases, it's done no better than some existing hybrids, according to a USDA report.

"Equally comparable varieties produced through conventional breeding techniques are readily available in irrigated corn regions," the report said.

But that's misleading, Monsanto says, because the regulatory trials were conducted with a single line of corn. Before the seeds go on sale, the biotech trait will be added to multiple hybrids and tested in drought-prone areas, hence the importance of the field tests Monsanto has been doing. This spring, researchers have planted test sites from Texas to South Dakota, and this time a large portion of that area already is in a drought.

The challenge Monsanto has in proving how well the biotech variety will do is common to plant breeding, said Mark Westgate, a crop physiologist at Iowa State University. "It all comes down to can you make this trait work in the locally adapted germplasm," he said.

It's too expensive to use more than one corn line to conduct regulatory trials, he said.

Improving a crop's drought resistance is especially difficult for seed companies because numerous genes are involved in affecting how a plant uses water. Testing is a challenge, too. Soil conditions, for example, can make a difference in how a variety performs. In hard, compacted soil, roots won't go down as far as they will in looser soils, leaving the shallow-rooted plants more vulnerable to drought, Westgate said.

Then there is the fundamental problem of testing a drought-tolerant crop somewhere other than the desert or in a greenhouse. Sometimes, it rains at the wrong time.

Monsanto has had similar problems with rain on field trials in South Africa.

"We have a joke around here that if you want it to rain, plant a drought trial," Reeves said.

Monsanto rival Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont unit based in Johnston, is further behind in developing a biotech drought-tolerant crop. Pioneer went to market this year with a conventionally bred drought-tolerant variety called Optimum AQUAmax. Field tests show the product has shown a 5 percent yield advantage over the leading commercially available varieties, according to the company.

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