FOOD SECURITY:

A biotech giant looks to become a 'yield company' in a climate-stressed world

ST. LOUIS -- Striving to pull away from being "just a biotechnology company," global agricultural corporation Monsanto is again turning to the global food crisis to champion the need for high-tech crops.

The world will need to double its crop output to satisfy 9 billion people on just a sliver more of available land, said executives and agricultural policy experts at a three-day media conference hosted by the agriculture giant. Advanced research in breeding varieties faster than before, along with genetic technology, is more important than ever.

Globally, there will be at most 12 percent more arable land available in the world in 2050 -- not including forested land and areas susceptible to soil erosion or desertification. Self-sufficiency in sub-Saharan Africa is a pipe dream, said Robert Thompson, a visiting scholar at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a speaker at the media event.

"Climate change, the potential for mitigation, these are very large issues," said Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant. "If there never was a new acre [for farming], there would be so much potential to improve productivity."

Crops need to be stronger against pests, thriftier with water, better fertilizer managers and able to withstand more heat, salt and variability. Conventional breeding techniques, in which scientists crossbreed two varieties of the same species, are useful and are a major part of Monsanto's research budget.

But conventional breeding can be limiting. Some important genes simply don't exist in a species' gene pool, say agricultural scientists.

Genetic engineering, in which genetic material is taken from one organism and transferred into another, can fill the gaps that can't be provided through breeding -- at rates thousands of times faster than using conventional breeding methods. The practice has garnered controversy, as consumer groups claim there is a lack of knowledge on the health and environmental risks of the technology.

A raft of new products

The company's pipeline is teeming with seeds aimed to protect farmers from losses due to pests, heat, drought and nutrient deficiencies. Nitrogen-efficient corn is expected in the next three to 10 years, as are high-yielding soybeans.

Stress-tolerant and herbicide-resistant wheat, developed in collaboration with chemical company BASF, is in the first of four phases. The company is set to begin field testing its biotech drought-tolerant corn variety in the western Corn Belt of the United States by next summer (Greenwire, May 11).

But the company's critics assert that Monsanto's research does not lead to significantly higher yields -- certainly not enough to double supply by 2050.

In June 2008, the company began releasing advertisements with the tag line "Producing more, conserving more, improving lives" to reflect a new focus on yields.

The timing was impeccable. In the same month, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's monthly food price index hit record levels. The price index tumbled precipitously after the summer of 2008, rising slowly again to once again break records in February of this year.

Again, the timing matched well with Monsanto's new focus. At a World Economic Forum meeting in January, the company, in partnership with several organizations, governments and multinational corporations, launched the New Vision for Agriculture. This outlined a commitment to increase crop yields by 20 percent, decrease poverty by 20 percent and slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent in the next decade using high-efficiency methods (ClimateWire, Jan. 31).

Games of word association

As little as three years ago, a Monsanto word association game would have brought up terms like "R&D," "corn" or "Roundup," said Kerry Preete, senior vice president of global strategy for the company.

"All of those would have been accurate. We would have ... defined ourselves by that. But as we look at that picture that we've just painted looking forward, we have redefined ourselves over the last three or four years," he said. Now, "we have to think of ourselves as a yield company."

Ask Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the Food and Environment program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to play the Monsanto word association game, and he is more likely to pull out "exaggerated claims," "profit-driven" or "misleading."

"It is making major media pushes to try to argue that genetic engineering is the way to go for addressing [food security]," he said of the agricultural biotech industry in general. Although Gurian-Sherman believes there is value in using genetic engineering to produce seeds, he said "there are real opportunity costs to putting too many eggs in one basket."

"Conventional breeding, with a conventional understanding of how genomes work, will far outpace genetic engineering in the next decade," he added.

In the year after Monsanto announced its three-point commitment, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report titled "Failure to Yield." The study reported scant -- if any -- yield benefits to using biotech crops. The study looked specifically at herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans and Bt corn, which is genetically engineered to produce bacteria toxic to corn pests.

"I don't think anything has really changed substantially since 2009," he said.

Gurian-Sherman, who prefers investment in conventional breeding and agroecology, said it is feasible to develop a conventionally bred trait that increases yields slowly, with a steady annual rate. They are much more cost-effective, as well. It costs about $100 million to develop a biotech seed. Conventionally bred ones require about $1 million in investment, he said.

Hunger, profits and a large unknown factor

But more importantly, the uncertainty of what climate change can bring is not addressed, he added. Nobody has an answer to what the rate losses in agriculture through drought, floods and insects may be.

Whether Monsanto will continue to invest if its predictions are off is still to be determined. Jerry Steiner, executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs, said that increasing yields around the world, while maintaining profits, is "absolutely possible."

"We're going to protect our profitability by making sure what we do gets enough value so that it moves the farmer ahead and also ultimately works for us," he said. "There are going to be places where we're going to make more investment that year than what we're going to get back in that year, but that can make commercial sense over a series of time."

Monsanto's strategy for increasing yield has typically focused around non-food crops like corn and soybeans, primarily used for cattle feed. The company only began investing in wheat in 2009, and stress-resistant varieties are years away from the money crops (ClimateWire, March 28).

Food security in the face of climate change is dependent on public-private partnerships, said Thompson, with public entities to keep goals in check.

"The private sector will be generous in their philanthropy, but they won't give it all away," he said. "There needs to be public-sector partnership or a major foundation to induce them to apply their research tools."