RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Agribusiness Syngenta is leading the charge on a new generation of corn designed by its scientists to withstand drought.
Rivals such as DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto are poised to introduce competing products, but Syngenta is the first to market with a new breed of corn that significantly ups the ante when it comes to surviving bone-dry weather. Syngenta's Agrisure Artesian hybrid corn seeds - sold by the company's Garst, Golden Harvest and NK brands - have been bred to reduce by 15 percent the amount of crop lost to drought. That has the potential to improve yields by 20 bushels of corn per acre.
"It's always an advantage if you can address your growers' needs, your customers' needs, first," said Tracy Mader, head of product marketing for Syngenta Seeds. "Growers are really anxious for the new technology."
The introduction of Agrisure Artesian comes as the agricultural sector is faring better than the overall economy.
"Population hasn't stopped because of the recession," said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, president of Syngenta Biotechnology, which is headquartered in RTP. "The underlying demand for agricultural products is absolutely there to stay."
Seed sales by the Swiss company rose 5 percent to $2.56 billion last year. In the latest quarter, seed sales rose 12 percent.
Syngenta isn't sharing its estimates of how big the global market might be for the next generation of drought-tolerant corn, but Bloomberg News has reported that it could top $2.7 billion a year.
"All players expect blockbuster potential," analyst Patrick Rafaisz of Bank Vontobel in Switzerland told Bloomberg this year.
Farmers would eagerly shift to the next generation of corn produced by Syngenta and others if they perform as advertised, said agricultural extension specialist Ron Heiniger of N.C. State University.
"Water is a scarce resource and getting scarcer," he said. He added that a common refrain among the state's corn farmers is that "we're never more than two weeks from a drought."
Corn, Heiniger said, is especially susceptible to drought because it requires more water than the typical crop.
Years of research
Scientists at Syngenta Biotechnology, which has 400 employees in RTP, spent nearly a decade developing Agrisure Artesian in conjunction with the company's breeders in the Midwest and California, who tested the hybrids in the field. Total investment: tens of millions of dollars, van Lookeren Campagne said.
Syngenta, the No. 3 supplier of corn seed, introduced Agrisure Artesian in July and is marketing it for planting during next year's growing season in states that are most susceptible to droughts: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. It could be available in North Carolina and South Carolina as soon as 2012.
Coming quickly, however, is Pioneer, which has not launched its new-generation, drought-tolerant corn but expects to do so in time for planting next year, spokeswoman Bridget Anderson said. Monsanto's entry, meanwhile, could come as soon as 2012, spokesman Ben Kampelman said.
Biotech and breeding
The development of Agrisure Artesian combined the latest biotechnology and traditional breeding techniques used to create novel hybrids.
The first stage involved a small team of RTP scientists who, using genome mapping, identified 100 naturally occurring corn genes with the potential for optimizing the plant's use of water.
"I think that way of working was the first of its kind," van Lookeren Campagne said. "That's also why we are now first to market."
By using genetic markers, the scientific equivalent of a landmark, the scientists bred these genes into new hybrids. In the industry, that's known as molecular breeding.
When they tested the hybrids, they found that 13 of the genes had a measurable, positive effect on water-optimization. Equally important, these 13 genes didn't produce negative side effects in the absence of a drought.
"The challenge is to have a highly productive plant under normal conditions that doesn't shut down [its growth] under drought conditions," van Lookeren Campagne said.
Further cross-breeding led to the development of Agrisure Artesian. That product actually is a series of hybrids with between six and 13 of the beneficial genes, tailored to suit specific regions.
Agrisure Artesian's water-optimization was achieved without genetic modifications, so federal regulatory approval wasn't required.
However, the final product incorporates previously approved genetically modified traits that protect it from insects and herbicides.
"Nobody in the U.S. wants to buy a corn hybrid anymore that doesn't have a herbicide tolerance," van Lookeren Campagne said of farmers. "And nobody wants to buy a corn hybrid anymore that doesn't have [pest] control."
Always on the hunt
Syngenta has started work on a new breed of genetically modified corn that would produce another leap forward in drought tolerance, but that product is years away.
Van Lookeren Campagne said the pursuit of ever-increasing production per acre requires using all the tools that technology offers.
"If you only have a hammer, you can only go so far," he said. "But if you have an electric saw and rivet guns ... you can build a house much faster."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4877