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January 26, 2009

Monsanto presses ahead with drought-tolerant seeds

By Jeffrey Tomich

The first drought-tolerant corn, expected to be available by 2012, has moved into the last phase of testing before commercialization, and Monsanto submitted the drought-tolerance trait to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December for approval.

The normally mundane step of a regulatory submission is significant in this case, company officials say. Although researchers have been improving drought tolerance in crops for years via conventional plant breeding, the filing marked the first time that such a drought-tolerance trait for any crop has been submitted to a regulatory body worldwide. Monsanto executives describe drought-tolerant corn as a "game changer."

It, along with the other new products flowing from its research labs, will help boost market share in more profitable biotech seeds. Monsanto established last year a goal of doubling yields in core crops by 2030 while reducing key inputs — water and fertilizer — by a third. "I really believe this shows we're widening the gap over the competition in drought tolerance, which we think will be a family of traits, not just for corn," Steve Padgette, Monsanto's Vice President of Biotechnology, told analysts and investors in a presentation recently in New York.

Monsanto rival Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. will offer a transgenic, or genetically modified, drought-tolerant corn in as few as five years, spokesman Pat Arthur said. The company will also roll out a non-biotech corn in 2010 or 2011 that has shown to boost yields 5 percent to 10 percent.

"Transgenic is not the ultimate goal," said Pat Arthur, a Pioneer spokesman. "The ultimate goal is to improve yields for the farmer."BB&T Capital chemicals analyst Frank J. Mitsch said in a report Monday that Monsanto's drought-tolerant corn gave the company "first-mover advantage (and by a long mile!)"

Field trials of Monsanto's drought-tolerant corn in the western Great Plains consistently showed a 6- to 10-percent yield boost in five years of testing, for an average gain of seven to 10 bushels on crops that average of 70 to 130 bushels per acre, the company said.The initial drought-tolerant offering is expected to be available beginning in 2012 and will be aimed at farmers in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Although genetically modified crops remain controversial, especially in Europe, farmers in South Dakota have widely embraced biotechnology to help bring additional yield increases on current acres and help push the Corn Belt further north and west. For more than a decade, scientists have made huge strides in genetically modified crops, improving yields in staples such as corn and soybeans by making them resistant to insects and herbicide.

Conventional breeding has also helped growers produce bigger crops with less water.Still, drought costs farmers billions of dollars in lost productivity. And water use is becoming an ever bigger issue around the world, especially in areas where resources are scarce."Over 60 percent of yield losses around the world are a result of drought, and any given place at any given time could see drought," Dusty Post, Monsanto's corn technology lead. Normally, photosynthesis and growth rates slow in plants that don't get enough water.

Monsanto's drought-tolerance gene minimizes the effect of drier soil on its metabolism, enabling the plant to continue to grow more normally. Water is especially important to corn plants during pollen shed and silking, and during grain fill. "If you don't have water during that time, you're likely to not have a very good yield," she said.Monsanto also needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and regulators in countries where the corn that's grown in the United States will be shipped before drought-tolerant corn is marketed commercially.

The drought-tolerance trait is a product of Monsanto's $1.5 billion collaboration with Germany's BASF AG, which began in March 2007, and one of several new offerings expected to come to market within a few years. A second generation of drought-tolerant corn will target other regions of the United States that see drought conditions less regularly, as well as Brazil, Argentina and parts of Europe.

"We do anticipate multiple generations of drought products that become increasingly more valuable to the farmer," Padgette said.

One area that could especially benefit from drought-tolerant crops is sub-Saharan Africa. There, Monsanto is simultaneously working on a drought-tolerant corn project — Water Efficient Maize for Africa — with a group of partners and says it would offer the trait royalty-free to subsistence farmers.

Monsanto won't say how much has been spent to date on developing drought-tolerant corn. But there's a lot at stake. The company spends about $2.6 million a day on research and development, and the average initial investment in a new product is about $100 million.Of all the various projects in the pipeline, a relative few, including drought-tolerant corn, are considered "High-Impact Technologies," ones in which Monsanto invests more money earlier in development because of the strategic value.

Richardson, of the South Dakota corn growers, agrees with the emphasis Monsanto is putting on the project."We believe this is a huge deal," she said. "It can change fundamentals of what your production is."

St. Louis Dispatch

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