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June 08, 2008

Monsanto to develop high-yielding seeds

Monsanto, the leader in agricultural biotechnology, pledged on June 5 to develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030 and would require 30 percent less water, land and energy to grow.

The announcement, coming as world leaders were meeting in Rome to discuss rising food prices and growing food shortages, appears to be aimed at least in part at winning acceptance of genetically modified crops by showing that they can play a major role in feeding the world.
Much of what is in the commitment are things the company was doing anyway, though it now becomes a formal goal.

Monsanto said it had developed its new commitment after consulting farmers, political leaders, academics and advocacy groups as to what needed to be done to increase food production to cope with a rising population and the demand for biofuels without converting more forests into farmland.

How much genetic engineering, which involves adding bacterial or other foreign genes to the DNA of plants, could contribute to improving output is a matter of debate. A recent review of agricultural technology, sponsored by the United Nations and the World Bank, saw a very limited role. But in Rome on June 4, United States Secretary of Agriculture Edward T. Schafer said biotechnology would be essential if the world was to increase food supply by 2030 to meet rising demand.

Genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton, genetically engineered to provide herbicide tolerance, insect resistance or both, are widely grown in the United States and several other countries. But they are largely shunned in Europe and some other areas because of concerns about potential environmental and health effects.

Perhaps seeking to avoid controversy, Monsanto’s announcement did not mention the term “genetic engineering.” It referred instead to “other technologies” beyond breeding.

Monsanto’s goal of doubling yields by 2030 over levels in 2000 might require a sharp acceleration in the rate by which agricultural productivity has been increasing. James E. Specht, a soybean genetics expert at the University of Nebraska, said he doubted it could be done.
“The hype-to-reality ratio of that one is essentially infinity,” Mr. Specht said. “Seeing an exponential change in the yield curve is unlikely.”

Mr. Specht said that on irrigated farms in Nebraska, soybean yields have been increasing by about 0.6 bushels an acre every year. At that rate it would take 83 years for yields to double from the 50 bushels an acre recorded in 2000.

But Monsanto executives say that a new technique called marker-assisted selection could double the rate of gain made from breeding. That technique does not involve altering crops by putting in foreign genes. Rather it uses genetic tests to help choose which plants to use in conventional cross-breeding, vastly speeding up the process and improving its efficiency.

Monsanto executives say genetic engineering could provide additional increases in output beyond that. The company’s insect-resistant crops already help protect corn and cotton. And Monsanto scientists are working on genetically engineered crops that would grow better with less water and fertilizer.

Moreover, the company is not talking about the United States alone. It said its commitment was to double the weighted average yield of all countries with access to the company’s seeds and modern agriculture production techniques, particularly Argentina and Brazil, in addition to the United States.

Brazil, for instance, produces only 58 bushels of corn an acre compared to 157 bushels in the United States. So big gains might be made by bringing Brazil to American levels, without having to vastly accelerate yield improvements in Nebraska.

Some critics of biotechnology say that genetic engineering so far has not been shown to improve yields, though it may provide more convenience for farmers. They also have said that the biotech crops developed so far have mainly been aimed at feeding livestock in wealthy countries, not improving the staple crops grown by small farmers in poor countries.

As part of its announcement, Monsanto said it would work to improve the lives of farmers, including poor ones, including sharing its technology. It recently announced a project with some other organizations to develop drought-tolerant corn for Africa, with Monsanto forgoing the collection of royalties for use of its technology.

Monsanto also said it would donate $10 million over five years to public-sector programs aimed at improving yields of wheat and rice, which are not a primary focus of the company’s efforts. Much of the breeding of those two food staples are performed by governments and universities.

Besides being a leader in genetic engineering, Monsanto is one of the largest suppliers of seeds in the world. It also sells the widely used herbicide Roundup, use of which has grown with the adoption of genetically engineered crops resistant to Roundup.

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