September 25, 2012
Drought-tolerant corn reveals plant biotech promise in parched Midwest
The article below is republished from SanDiegoBiotechnology.com; read the original version at the following link: https://sandiegobiotechnology.com/topics/5265/drought-tolerant-corn-reveals-plant-biotech-promise-in-parched-midwest/.
Growing up in Iowa, the sarcastic saying we overused was something was about as exciting as watching the corn grow. But this year’s massive drought in the U.S. Corn Belt revealed something truly exciting to anybody interested in a biotechnology stock that would go up with global warming.
The stock that could get hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch is Monsanto (NYSE: MON). Here’s why:
Anecdotal reports from field trials in California and Nebraska indicate that, respectively, Arcadia Biosciences’ nitrogen- and water-use-efficient rice and Monsanto’s DroughtGard Hybrids corn were generating significantly higher yields in side-by-side comparisons with competitor hybrids.
“This year – what a year for a test!” said Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board. “I heard rumblings that Monsanto’s DroughtGard Hybrids were really showing some good results. Some farmers had limited irrigation water, and the drought-tolerant hybrid did well with limited water.”
California, which relies heavily on crop irrigation, stands to benefit as much as any state if genes that confer drought tolerance can be added to more crops. Such GM corn, cotton, vegetables and other crops important to California growers would, in theory, require less irrigation water to generate essentially the same yield as non-GM crops grown on fully irrigated fields.
Pioneer DuPont (NYSE: DD), Syngenta AG (NYSE: SYT), Dow Chemical Co. (NYSE: DOW), Germany’s Bayer AG and Davis, Calif.-based Arcadia Biosciences, as well as university researchers, this year field-tested hundreds of varieties of GM corn, soybeans, canola (rapeseed), cotton, rice, wheat, potatoes and other crops.
Monsanto’s net sales in the third quarter of the current fiscal year increased to $4.2 billion, an increase of $611 million or 17 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. The improvement was driven by sales growth in the company’s seeds and traits business, and better-than-expected sales across its chemistry portfolio. The strong showing in this year’s field tests of DroughtGard bodes well for sales in 2013 of the only drought-tolerant biotech-traited corn approved for commercial use in the U.S.
Monsanto’s 2012 field trials of DroughtGard on 250 farms in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas gave farmers an opportunity to see DroughtGard on their farms. A Sept. 11 Monsanto news release said, “Farmers in Central Texas and Eastern Kansas are seeing an up to 6 bushel advantage over competitor hybrids.”
Maintaining reasonable yields
“I would have to say that should be considered a positive result,” said Alan Bennett, a professor of plant science at University of California, Davis. “While not in itself a total solution to the yield decreases due to drought, we should be happy for any positive results in this very difficult but important area.”
Bennett’s assessment was echoed by Jim Dunwell, professor of Plant Biotechnology at the University of Reading in the U.K.: “If verified, these results are most promising, providing a new approach to maintaining reasonable yields under drought conditions. Monsanto has invested more than any other company in genetically modified crops, and have proven commercial success in this area with insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant varieties.”
Drop in a watchdog’s bucket
Opponents of plant biotechnology are not so impressed.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which opposes genetic engineering on apparently ideological grounds and describes itself as helping society “distinguish the critical from the trivial,” poo-pooed DroughtGard’s performance in a June 5, 2012, news release. The UCS described DroughtGard’s six-bushels-per-acre yield increase as a “drop in the bucket.”
Strangely, the Concerned Scientists group gave no scientific reason for opposing DroughtGard and also acknowledged in the same news release that 70 percent of water extracted from rivers and wells is used for agricultural purposes and “climate scientists predict that drought frequency and severity likely will increase in some regions as climate change worsens.”
The UCS also claimed that DroughtGard is handicapped “by the fact that it will work well only under moderate drought conditions.” However, Mark Lawson, lead of Monsanto’s yield and stress platform team, disagreed, saying in a telephone interview, “If you don’t have stress conditions, performance of DroughtGard is not lower” than other varieties of corn. If distinguishing the critical from the trivial is the mission of the UCS, a Midwestern farmer might say the organization has become its own worst enemy when it comes to corn.
In a further display of what many experts call ideological bias, a study “in press” to be published by Food and Chemical Toxicology and funded by the Committee of Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, a French group opposed to GM crops, found that Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready corn laced with the herbicide caused tumors in rats. Experts told the New York Times that not only were the number of animals involved too few to generate statistically significant results, but another red flag was also the study’s finding that groups of rats fed higher doses of the herbicide or GM corn had the same rate of tumors as animals receiving lower doses: usually, harmful agents exhibit a greater effect with higher dose.
Array of crop genes
Pioneer DuPont is testing drought-tolerant varieties of corn, but the company, which licenses some Monsanto GM technologies, has traditionally lagged behind Monsanto’s more aggressive GM R&D program.
“Monsanto is developing an array of additional genes, including nitrogen-use efficiency and intrinsic yield,” Lawson said.
The starting point for the DroughtGard Hybrids system was a corn hybrid that already performed well in low-moisture conditions. To that cultivar the company added a gene from Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium that itself can tolerate extreme environmental conditions, and is also used in food products.
The added Bacillus gene makes cold shock protein B (cspB), which is a molecular “chaperone” that binds to RNA molecules and facilitates their function. The gene was first identified in bacteria subjected to cold stress. Monsanto research published in Plant Physiology showed that when the cspB protein is overproduced it also helps plants cope with drought stress.
Raising the downside
Farmers are willing participants in field tests of corn because even small increases in yield can mean the difference between a profit and a loss. The U.S. now produces more GM crops than any country. The area of GM crops planted worldwide in 2011 in 29 countries surpassed the total area of the U.S. by 25 percent, according to a 2011 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). “There is one principal and overwhelming reason that underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in biotechnology – biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socioeconomic and environmental benefits,” the report said.
U.S. farming regions prone to drought have an average yield of 70 to 130 bushels per acre, but drought conditions can cut the yield in half or more. Even in non-drought years, up to 13 million acres of U.S. farmland planted with corn “may be affected by at least moderate drought,” according to Monsanto.
“Everything we plant that is ‘biotech’ increases our yield: there is a lot less downside potential,” Dave Nielsen, who farms 2,400 acres near Lincoln, Neb., said in a telephone interview. “But you still have to have some rain, unless they crossbreed corn to a cactus, and I don’t think the technology is there yet.”
DroughtGard corn will be available in 2013 to Nielsen and other farmers in the Western Great Plains, but farmers who plant it must agree to use it as on-farm feed or sell the grain for domestic use due to pending import approvals in key export markets.
U.S. rice exports to the E.U. in 2006 were a disappointing test case for all crops. While the U.S. has approved GM rice for commercialization, the EU hasn’t. The E.U. also has a zero-tolerance policy toward importation of any non-E.U.-approved GM crops. So, when a U.S. rice shipment was discovered to contain trace amounts of a non-E.U.-approved herbicide-tolerant GM rice developed by Bayer CropScience, the E.U. blocked the entire rice shipment. In 2007, U.S. rice exports to the E.U. collapsed, but later began to recover somewhat.
The E.U. policies, exemplified by its record on rice, typify the stalling, unscientific nature of its approval process: The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) on Oct. 30, 2007, determined that Bayer’s rice is “as safe as conventional rice and therefore the use is unlikely to have an adverse effect on human or animal health or, in the context of its proposed use, on the environment.” The approval of Bayer’s rice today remains stuck at the “risk assessment” stage: the E.U. has asked the EFSA “to confirm that the scientific evidence is complete,” despite the EFSA’s earlier recommendations.
The so-called “asynchronous approval” problem for GM food, flowers and animal feed has become a flashpoint in international trade. A 2008 report by an institute of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission said 30 GM varieties of seven crops were being produced worldwide in 2008, and the number was expected to increase to more than 120 GM varieties by 2015.
India and China have not sought E.U. export approval for their GM crops and while those and other countries are developing a wide array of such crops. The E.U. has approved only 31 of 130 GM applications, with 13 going to Monsanto, six to Pioneer DuPont, five to Syngenta, four to Bayer, two to BASF and one to Florigene Ltd. Given the slow pace and what some consider unreasonable objections to GM crops, experts doubt that neither Asian nor Latin American countries will seek E.U. import approval in the future for more GM crops in development.
The E.U.’s approvals of GM crops are good for only 10 years. Six such approvals have expired, including three for canola, two for corn and one for a GM carnation with a different flower color. Those crops can no longer be exported to the E.U. without completion of an arduous renewal process.
To make matters worse, the E.U.’s zero-tolerance policies are nearly impossible for many international grain shippers to comply with at all times, because GM and non-GM grains are inevitably mixed during bulk handling in international trade, according to the European Commission report. When the E.U.’s “identity preservation systems” detects the presence of any non-E.U.-approved crop, no matter how small, the entire shipment is blocked.
Geographic modification of livestock farmers
At the same time, European livestock farmers, like the continent’s food-industry sector, are dependent on imports of cheap agricultural commodities. The European Commission report titled “The global pipeline of new GM crops: Implications of asynchronous approval for international trade,” said that unless E.U. policies against GM crop imports change, European livestock farmers “may have to relocate abroad” and EU consumers will inevitably pay more for food.
“The EU is hopelessly behind, and will become increasingly isolated with respect to where it can source animal feeds as other countries more readily adopt more advanced [GM] varieties,” said Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis. “I expect that a drought-tolerant variety that really works would be so attractive to U.S. producers that they will quickly adopt it and the marketing system will adapt.”
Betting big on plant biotech
With or without a change in E.U. policies, Monsanto is betting big on plant biotechnology. It has more E.U.-approved crops than any company, and has more GM crops in various stages of the E.U.’s Byzantine application approval pipeline.
Monsanto assumes that acceptance, and even enthusiasm, of global agriculture interests for GM crops will continue to increase. Some consumer groups may continue to harbor ill-defined, unproven, unrealized fears that GM crops are Franken foods, despite their sometimes greater nutritional content and environmental considerations, including growth of GM crops with less irrigation water, transportation fuel and pesticides.
“In our interactions with Monsanto in collaborative projects, we have found them to be among the most responsible companies in terms of their concern for following all of the requirements of their permits and their concern for stewardship of their products,” Bradford said. “They also have licensed their patented genes to many other companies, rather than keeping them as a monopoly.”
While giants in the plant biotech sector focus on GM hybrids with greater yield, tolerance to stresses like drought and pest resistance, small biotech companies are finding opportunities in areas such as more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer.
Eric Rey, CEO of Davis, Calif.-based Arcadia Biosciences, said a gene from barley that increases the absorption of nitrogen fertilizer boosts yields of rice up to 50 percent. In 2012 field tests, Rey said rice yields increase 10-23 percent with half as much fertilizer as usual. At the same time, less excess nitrogen in the soil resulted in less being washed into streams or metabolized by soil microbes into nitrogen oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
“We are also ‘stacking’ nitrogen- and water-efficiency with saline-tolerance genes,” Rey said. “In field trials this year with rice grown under reduced water availability the indications are increased yield” compared to non-GM controls. He said the GM rice also matched the yield of controls in optimally irrigated fields.
An Arcadia Biosciences trial of drought-tolerant soybeans in Argentina in 2011 generated a 15-20 percent higher yield than non-GM controls. However, Rey predicts that most farmers will increasingly demand GM crops with various stacks of added genes that “perform better over a wide set of growth conditions.”
Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company with $12 billion in net sales in 2011, is most noted for its Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) insect-resistant crops. Monsanto also developed crop varieties that are unaffected by the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup. After planting so-called Roundup Ready crops, farmers spray them with Roundup to kill weeds instead of using more expensive, energy-consuming soil tilling.
Plant biotechnology discovery
Plant biotechnology researchers studying the model plant Arabidopsis have described a variety of new genes that may be targeted to help plants grow better under environmental stress or insect attack.
For example, researchers at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., reported in the August 30 issue of Science magazine the discovery of a new stress-related genetic switch in Arabidopsis. The researchers said the switch normally causes leaves to wilt, age prematurely and spoil under stress conditions. However, Salk professor Joseph Ecker said inactivation of the switch may help plants thrive in drought conditions.
While continuing his lab’s research, Ecker also is keenly interested in ongoing field tests of GM crops by farmers themselves. “All the major seed companies have a drought-tolerant product they’re testing this year, and not all the genes they’re testing are the same,” Ecker said. “It will be very interesting to see how the various drought-tolerant products perform.”
Accessing field-trial data
“We have a yield-and-stress team that is looking at many genes, including nitrogen-use efficiency and intrinsic yield,” said Monsanto’s Lawson in a telephone interview. “Some affect other parts of the plant in different ways.”
A U.S. Department of Agriculture database lists 543 field tests of GM corn in various stages of completion by Monsanto and DuPont between 2000 and 2020. During the same period Syngenta was conducting 27 tests.
Seed companies rarely publicize field test results of their crops under development.
“We’ve tried to get access to trial data to analyze and how well they work and under what conditions, but we can’t access the data,” said Travis Lybbert, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis. “In public-private partnerships in Africa, some of the field trial results are available or summarized. They give you some sense of yield benefits, but not in enough detail.”
This summer in the DroughtGard trials, farmers generated detailed results on the yields of the crop grown on different soil types on their farms, each with different moisture contents and soil-fertility profiles. Many participating farmers recorded the GPS position of each corn seed planted this spring. They sometimes alternated several rows of DroughtGard corn planted with an equal number of rows of a control. This month, corn-harvesting machinery is providing instantaneous read-outs of yield of each type of corn as the machines rumble across cornfields.
In 2012, Nielsen, the Lincoln, Neb., farmer, planted half of his acreage in corn and half in soybeans. “We received 0.5 inches of rain since June 3,” he said. “Our yield is about half of normal with corn and one-third to one-fourth of normal with beans.”
Nielsen wasn’t one of the 250 farmers participating this year in Monsanto’s DroughtGard testing, but would consider planting it in 2013 when it will be available.
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