Drought tests modified corn seed sooner than expected

Field trials of Syngenta drought-tolerant corn at Western Kentucky University

Illinois farmer Mike Cyrulik didn’t foresee this year’s drought when, this spring, he planted 20 bags of a new corn seed on a slice of his 5,000-acre farm. Today, weeks before the harvest, much of his and his neighbors’ crop is dead or dying. But not the portion of his land where he planted the new seed. The healthy looking plants have “wound up being the talk of the town,” says Cyrulik, who expects a significantly higher yield, by 30 to 50 bushels, from each of those 220 acres in Bloomington.

The reason is drought-resistant corn, produced by one of the world’s largest seed companies, Syngenta, which began limited sales just before the 2011 growing season. In fact, three major seed producers—Syngenta, along with DuPont and Monsanto—are hoping for successes similar to Cyrulik’s in the midst of the worst drought to strike the U.S. in half a century…

Drought tolerance is one of the most challenging areas of research in agriculture, says Monsanto drought and water utilization lead Mark Edge. In recent years, technologies that allow more rapid screening for promising raw genetic material have helped advance both traditional breeding and genetic modification programs in this area…

Part of the difficulty in engineering for drought tolerance is that researchers must find genes that have a large enough effect on a plant’s response to warrant a major commercialization investment, says Purdue University agronomist Mitch Tuinstra. The average transgenic crop can take Monsanto more than a decade and $100 million to bring to market.

“It’s going to be one of the key mechanisms moving forward, but I don’t think we’re going to find the magic bullet that solves all of our problems,” he says. Technology can’t change the fact that a plant needs water, he says…

Despite the Syngenta corn’s success on his farm, Cyrulik cannot yet answer the initial question—how the product would perform for him in an average rainfall year—that spurred him to try it out in the first place. He thinks it could be useful to pay the premium for seeds that can provide a safety net for drought, but they’d still have to produce up to his usual standards when normal rains come.

I can understand that question all right. It’s why my pickup – the last truck I bought eight years before I retired – is four-wheel-drive. 98% of driving never required the extra traction. But, those few job sites that were challenging enough to need it – or our usual late summer trips into the forest with a dead-and-down permit to cut firewood for our home for the winter justified the extra expense at purchase time.

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