Monday, August 6, 2012

USDA Looks to Approve Monsanto's Drought-Tolerant Corn

by Paul Voosen of Greenwire, on the New York Times:

The Obama administration will seek to allow the unlimited sale of a corn variety genetically engineered by Monsanto Co. to resist drought, the Department of Agriculture announced today.

The corn, if approved, would be the first commercial biotech crop designed to resist stressful environmental conditions like drought, rather than pests or herbicides.

Drought tolerance has been a longtime goal of the agricultural biotech companies, who hold up the trait as one way they could aid both their bottom line and farmers in drought-prone regions. But the trait, influenced by a wide variety of genes, has proved difficult to develop.

The market could be vast. In North America, up to 40 percent of crop-loss insurance claims are due to heavy or moderate drought, according to some estimates. Worldwide, corn-growing regions lose about 15 percent of their annual crop to drought, and losses run much higher in severe conditions.

However, Monsanto's corn is unlikely to perform well enough to tap this potential, USDA found. While the agency's draft environmental assessment of the modified corn found the crop unlikely to pose a plant pest risk, prompting USDA to seek deregulation, the agency also noted that many corn varieties on the market match Monsanto's strain in their water use.

"The reduced yield [trait] does not exceed the natural variation observed in regionally-adapted varieties of conventional corn," the report says, adding that "Equally comparable varieties produced through conventional breeding techniques are readily available in irrigated corn production regions."

Given the slight improvements made by the corn, the agency does not project that approving the variety would cause an increase in corn cultivation. Last year, U.S. farmers planted some 86.4 million acres of corn, 86 percent of which was genetically engineered to grant resistance to insects and weedkillers.

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