Corn that can resist drought a 'blockbuster'
By Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi
Bloomberg News Service
Lance Russell's neighbors aren't used to seeing corn growing in the fields around Hays, Kansas, where such plants tend to wither and keel over in the dry heat. They may be in for a surprise this summer.
Russell is planting DuPont Co.'s drought-tolerant corn, one of the seeds heading to market next year that's designed to thrive where water is scarce. An experimental plot in 2009 improved on the economics of the sorghum crop "by a landslide," Russell said.
Monsanto Co., DuPont and Syngenta AG, all of which have operations in Hawai'i, are vying for a similar windfall. After battling for a decade to corner the $11 billion market for insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant technologies, the world's biggest seed companies are vying to develop crops that can survive drought. At stake is a new global market that may top $2.7 billion for the corn version alone.
"It's a race at the moment," said Juergen Reck, a Frankfurt-based analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. "They must see market potential."
Hawai'i's seed crop industry includes 10 farms (on O'ahu, Kaua'i, Moloka'i and Maui) cultivating crops on 6,010 acres.
The technology will have wide-ranging effects, from helping farmers draw less irrigation water to lowering insurance premiums and boosting land values in drought-prone regions, agricultural economists say. The seeds also may increase corn plantings on the Mainland plains at the expense of wheat and sorghum, and alter the market for biofuels.
Perhaps most importantly for farmers, corn yields may climb. DuPont says seed being tested on 5,000 acres this year is expected to boost yields in dry environments by at least 6 percent. Syngenta is trying for yield increases of at least 10 percent for its corn. Both companies used conventional methods to develop the seeds for sale next year, with biotech versions due later in the decade.
The seeds will be a "big market" for Switzerland-based Syngenta, chief executive Michael Mack said by phone. "Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to technology providers in order to have this feature."
Monsanto is moving directly to a biotech version that it says will increase corn yields 6 percent to 10 percent. The company's seed, developed with BASF SE, may go on the market in 2012.
The Monsanto-BASF partnership, created in 2007, aims to have its drought genetics in 55 million acres of U.S. corn by 2020. In comparison, St. Louis-based Monsanto had at least one biotech trait in 82 percent of the nation's 86.5 million acres of corn last year.
Monsanto and BASF are also developing drought-resistant versions that can serve as insurance for growers who normally have adequate rainfall or irrigation. The seeds may generate annual sales of almost $1 billion, assuming the trait retails on average for $18 an acre, according to Germany BASF, the world's largest chemicals company.
"All players expect blockbuster potential," said Patrick Rafaisz, a Zurich-based analyst at Bank Vontobel AG.
The global market for drought-tolerant corn may reach 150 million acres, Delaware-based DuPont said in a February presentation, without providing a timeframe. That implies a market of $2.7 billion, based on BASF's $18-per-acre projection. In comparison, global sales of all seeds in 2008 were $26 billion, including $9 billion in corn, Edinburgh-based industry consultant Phillips McDougall said in a December report.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global fresh-water use, Monsanto chief executive Hugh Grant said. Reducing irrigation not only contributes to more sustainable farming, it's a "game changer" that will boost profits and help feed a rising world population, he said. "The biggest single issue in farming going forward is water, use of water, water availability in many parts of the world, so I think it will be a significant product," Grant said.
Monsanto also is engineering crop seeds, including cotton, wheat and sugar cane, for drought tolerance, and the company and BASF are donating drought-resistant corn technologies to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
The prospect of drought-resistant seeds isn't winning over opponents of genetically modified foods, who say the latest technology may taint conventional corn supplies and allow large companies to perpetuate an industrial agricultural system that harms water resources.
"Their approach is that the market system of expansion we have is just fine and we can use technology to adapt to any problems and make money at the same time," Maude Barlow, chairwoman of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, said in e-mailed responses to questions. "We are also very concerned about the possibility of this genetically engineered corn contaminating the stock."
The technology will expand the U.S. corn-growing region westward and help the country's farmers cut their irrigation bill, said Kevin C. Dhuyvetter, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. The trait may reduce farmers' insurance premiums and ultimately boost land values in water-starved regions of Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, he said.
"If we can apply 2 inches less water, that would be a huge benefit because the groundwater supplies are always diminishing," Dhuy-vetter said by phone.
By expanding the corn-growing region, the technology can help grow more grain to meet government targets that call for tripling use of biofuels — including ethanol, which is made from corn — in the U.S. by 2022, said Art Barnaby, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.
Growing more corn may lower prices, benefiting grain-importing countries, Barnaby said in a telephone interview. The biggest buyers of U.S. corn last year were Japan, Mexico and South Korea, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, price changes won't be significant because increased supply may be consumed by rising ethanol production and a growing world population, he said.
Climate change may affect all of the variables. Global warming will increase vulnerability to drought in many U.S. regions, and that may increase the need for drought-resistant seeds.
"If you are in the drylands, this is a big deal," Mark Gulley, a New York-based analyst at Soleil Securities, said in a telephone interview.
It certainly is for Russell, the Kansas farmer. He said DuPont's drought-tolerant corn outperformed other varieties by 15 percent last year when the weather was relatively moderate.
"Honestly, I wouldn't mind a dry, hot year where I can really test these varieties," Russell said.