Drought-tolerant biotech corn OK'd

of Monsanto A new type of corn has been developed by biotech giant Monsanto Co. The most recent corn trait developed by the company and approved by USDA imparts increased drought tolerance to the crop.

USDA approves ninth transgenic crop for 2011

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The Monsanto biotech company has won approval from USDA to commercialize corn that's been genetically engineered to better withstand drought.

The biotech trait is the first associated with drought tolerance that USDA has approved since it began deregulating transgenic crops in the early 1990s, according to an agency database.

Monsanto's new variety was also the ninth transgenic crop cleared for commercialization in 2011, a big increase from several prior years when only two or three transgenic crops were deregulated annually.

The drought tolerant trait was developed in collaboration with BASF.

The cultivar relies on a gene from Bacillus subtilis, a hardy soil bacteria that helps "preserve cellular functions during certain stresses," according to Monsanto's petition for deregulation.

According to Monsanto spokesperson Danielle Stuart, the technology could have applications beyond corn.

"There is a possibility the gene could be used in other crops and Monsanto has a robust pipeline that evaluates many genes," she said in an email.

When the cultivar receives an abundance of water, yields don't differ much from regular corn, and the trait won't save the crop in extreme drought conditions, the petition said.

Under less severe water-limited conditions, however, the trait has been shown to reduce the effect of drought on the plant's ability to photosynthesize and is associated with higher numbers of kernels per ear, the petition said.

For example, field tests conducted in Kansas and California found the cultivar generated yields about 16 percent and 10 percent higher than control varieties, respectively, the petition said.

According to a statement from Monsanto, in spring 2012 farmers in the western Great Plains will begin on-farm trials with the trait, which will be incorporated into insect- and herbicide-resistant varieties from the company.

According to an environmental analysis by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the trait must be deregulated because it's unlikely to pose a plant pest risk.

Despite being able to handle moderate drought stress, the cultivar isn't likely to become established "outside the agricultural environment" and the "cultivation range" of the variety is likely to be similar to that of regular corn, the agency said.

Biotech critics like the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit group, are nonetheless skeptical of the deregulation decision.

Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the group, said the USDA's environmental assessment undermines the crop's value to agriculture, pointing to language in the report that said "comparable varieties produced through conventional breeding techniques are readily available."

"For decades, there's been breeding for drought tolerance," Freese said. "There's such hoopla about everything that's genetically engineered."

Although drought tolerant corn isn't brand new, Monsanto's promotional efforts may increase awareness of the variety and lead farmers to plant more of the crop in dry areas, he said.

"They have such marketing muscle, it's probably going to be available to farmers more than other drought tolerant varieties developed in the past," he said.

Freese said he's concerned that increased corn acreage will drive up usage of nitrogen fertilizer, which encourages algae growth in water and harms ocean life.

"The last thing we need is to be growing more corn in this country," he said.

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