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.
It remains to be seen how effective Monsanto's corn will be if widely employed. However, the company did make notable ground in engineering this resistance with a single gene, discovered in soil bacteria strains exposed to harsh, cold conditions. Further work found that the cspB gene, as it's known, codes for proteins that assist RNA, the genome's messengers, in their work.
Monsanto developed the corn in collaboration with the German chemical firm BASF. The companies have collaborated on biotech research since 2007, and two years ago announced the development of their first drought-tolerant corn strain. More advanced versions are in their research pipelines, the companies have promised.
While Monsanto's corn, if approved, would be the United States' first bioengineered drought-tolerant variety, this spring the company's longtime rival, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, began offering drought-resistant corn in Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Pioneer's corn, developed through traditional breeding, required no government approval.
USDA will accept comments on the corn's possible approval until early July.
Click here to see the Federal Register notice.