Thursday, April 22, 2010

Seed companies eye profit in drought-tolerant crops

Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi in Business Day (South Africa): Lance Russell’s neighbours are not used to seeing maize growing in the fields around Hays, Kansas, where the plants tend to die in the hot, dry summers. Russell is planting DuPont’ s drought-tolerant maize, one of the seeds heading to market next year that’s designed to thrive where water is scarce. An experimental plot last year improved on the economics of the sorghum crop “by a landslide”, Russell says.

Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta are vying for a similar windfall. After battling for a decade to corner the $11bn 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 $2,7bn for the maize version alone. “It’s a race at the moment,” says Juergen Reck, a Frankfurt- based analyst at Macquarie Group. “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 will be a “big market” for Syngenta, CEO Michael Mack says. “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 maize yields 6% to 10%. The company’s seed, developed with BASF , 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 22,2- million hectares of US maize by 2020. In comparison, Monsanto had at least one biotech trait in 82% of the nation’s 35-million hectares of maize last year….

A corn field in Ohio, shot by graylight, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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