USDA approves first drought-tolerant corn

Source: Paul Voosen • E&E  • Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Agriculture Department will allow the unlimited sale of a biotech corn designed to resist drought conditions, the agency announced this afternoon. Developed by the seed giant Monsanto Co., the corn is the first commercial biotech crop designed to resist environmental stress.

The efficient use of water has long been an elusive goal for biotech seed companies, touted as an application of genetic engineering that could bolster the world’s food supply. In reality, however, the trait, influenced by a host of genes, has proven far more difficult to engineer than past successes in pest or herbicide resistance.

As part of its ongoing collaboration with the German biochemical firm BASF, Monsanto says its drought-tolerance trait, sold in corn lines already carrying tolerance to its Roundup herbicide and pest resistance, is ready for test cultivation in parched areas.

“Our drought system is designed to help farmers mitigate the risk of yield loss when experiencing drought stress, primarily in areas of annual drought stress,” said Hobart Beeghly, Monsanto’s U.S. product management lead, in a statement. “This spring farmers in the Western Great Plains will have an opportunity to see how the system performs.”

Monsanto will not yet be broadly selling the corn, but rather will be testing the crops in on-farm trials. The company previously stated that it expects 250 farmers spread over dry states like Texas and Kansas to participate in the trials, encompassing some 10,000 acres.

While the trials will start small, the market for drought tolerance could be vast. In North America, up to 40 percent of crop-loss insurance claims are due to heavy or moderate drought. Worldwide, corn-growing regions lose about 15 percent of their annual crop to drought, and losses run much higher in severe conditions.

The drought-tolerant trait is unlikely to allow the growth of corn in regions already unsuited to the crop, but under drought and water-limited conditions, it will allow more grain to be saved than conventional varieties, USDA noted in its assessment.

Like its Roundup Ready and BT biotech traits, Monsanto’s drought tolerance derives from a bacterial gene inserted into the corn genome. Discovered in soil bacteria exposed to harsh, cold conditions, the cspB gene, as it is known, creates proteins that assist RNA, the genome’s messengers, in its work, greasing function in stressful conditions.

Past competitors, Monsanto and BASF have collaborated on biotech research since 2007, and two years ago announced the development of their first drought-tolerant corn strain. More advanced versions are in their research pipelines, the companies have promised.

While Monsanto’s corn is the United States’ first bioengineered drought-tolerant variety, this spring the company’s longtime rival, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, began offering drought-resistant corn in Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Pioneer’s corn, developed through traditional breeding, required no government approval.

Earlier this month, USDA also approved Monsanto’s sale of a biotech soybean designed to produce healthier vegetable oils; last year, Pioneer became the first seed company to have such a biotech crop approved. The companies are currently jockeying to win over farmers to their respective crops, promising the modified soybeans will allow the production of oils free of trans fats (Greenwire, June 7, 2010).