Monsanto, DuPont Race to Win $2.7 Billion Drought-Corn Market

70213_512
Bloomberg: Larry W. Smith

By Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi – April 21, 2010, 12:16 AM EDT – Bloomberg-BusinessWeek/St. Paul Pioneer Press

April 21 (Bloomberg) — Lance Russell’s neighbors aren’t used to seeing corn growing in the fields around Hays, Kansas, where the plants tend to wither and keel over in the hot, dry summers. 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 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.”

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 in the U.S. Great Plains at the expense of wheat and sorghum while altering the market for biofuels.

Higher Yields

Perhaps most importantly for farmers, corn yields may climb. DuPont says seed being tested on 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) this year is expected to boost yields in dry environments by at least 6 percent. Syngenta is targeting yield increases of at least 10 percent for its corn. Both companies used conventional breeding to develop the seeds for sale next year, with biotech versions due later in the decade.

The seeds will be a “big market” for Basel, Switzerland- based Syngenta, Chief Executive Officer Michael Mack said in a telephone interview. “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 be put on sale in 2012 and become the first product genetically engineered to tolerate drought.

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.

Insurance for Growers

Monsanto and BASF are also developing drought-resistant versions that can serve as insurance for growers who normally have adequate rainfall or access to irrigation. The seeds may generate annual sales of almost $1 billion assuming the trait retails on average for $18 an acre, according to Ludwigshafen, Germany-based 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, Wilmington, 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 of corn, Edinburgh-based industry consultant Phillips McDougall said in a December report.

‘Game Changer’

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global fresh-water use, Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant said in an interview. 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.

‘System of Expansion’

“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 while helping 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,” Dhuyvetter said in a telephone interview.

Effect on Markets

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, according to the Geological Society of America, 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.

–With reporting by Peter J. Brennan in Los Angeles and Richard Weiss in Frankfurt. Editors: Steven Frank, Kevin Miller.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jack Kaskey in New York at kaskey@bloomberg.net; Antonio Ligi in Zurich at aligi@bloomberg.net.

Will the FDA Tighten Up on Corn?

The guidelines issued for testing GM Corn seem to leave a lot of room for doubt, questions, and worse: blame.

There are numerous studies conducted by independent agencies (which are funded by other independent groups who, no doubt, have an agenda to service)  that have been used to illustrate that the FDA must take the results of these trials seriously and ban the use of GM seed. After all, these same GM crops are banned in Germany, France, and other parts of Europe, so they must be bad.

Maybe the testing standards of GM seed and their resulting crops should be better aligned with seeking out long-term effects of consumption and use. The FDA might benefit from revisiting and adjusting these standards if the reward is the prevention of the sorts of disease and complications that have arisen in testing done by groups funded (even in part) by Greenpeace.  If the testing standards are widened to include periods of time that will allow for long-term effects to materialize, the use of GM seed and crops may prove to be far more expensive than using non-modified seed and having to plant more of it to get the same crop yields.

The study done by biologists de Vendômois, Roullier, Cellier, and  Séralini is alarming. These scientists state

“Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn. In addition, unintended direct or indirect metabolic consequences of the genetic modification cannot be excluded.”

It would seem that, at the very least, Americans should be allowed to KNOW if what they are consuming has been made with any of these modified products : NK 603, MON 810 and MON 863. However, the FDA does not require products made with these GMOs to be labeled as such. Why aren’t we encouraged to know?

What strikes the loudest chime in all this kerfuffle is that Monsanto did thier own analysis of the GMO, but

“It is very surprising that the experimental design was elaborated and performed at the MSE-N laboratory, a Monsanto company, and that the statistical analysis of the data was carried out by Monsanto’s statistics centre. This is likely to seriously impair the independence of the expertise involved.”

And many scientists have similarly stated that “There are a number of open questions and indications that Monsanto’s conclusion is premature and the data have to undergo further investigation.”  Because

“the final report concludes that “…rats fed corn grain containing event NK 603 corn responded similarly to rats fed parental and reference control grain..” and that “… Roundup Ready NK 603 corn is equivalent to its parent control line and nontransgenic commercial corn varieties…”

The reason for this conclusion comes from the observation that the number of significant observed differences is of the same order as the number expected by chance. Therfore, the statistical analysis concludes that those differences occur randomly, are not relevant and can not be considered biologically significant. But this is not final proof that the significant effects are not related, nor that they are not important for mammalian health. Further studies have to be conducted.”

All the debate about use of GMOs, labeling, research and reporting methods, opens a new can of worms: With discussions about the health care system and mandatory health plans, one begins to question the real problem at hand. You can put that one together, right?