By Carey Gillam
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Utilizing biotech “drought-tolerant” corn to boost global food production would be a less-effective tactic than planting conventional corn and improving agronomic practices, a veteran plant scientist said on Tuesday.
“The technology has gotten a tremendous amount of attention. We think undue attention,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit.
“It is a modest benefit and a real benefit and a step forward. But it is really kind of a baby step,” Gurian-Sherman, who served on a FDA biotech advisory subcommittee from 2002 to 2005, said of biotech advances in drought tolerance.
He said drought-tolerant corn “is going to be useful for many 15 to 20 percent of the areas where moderate levels of drought are pretty predictable, places like Nebraska and Kansas. It is not likely to be helpful at all with the kinds of severe droughts that we’ve had in Texas the last couple of years. This crop is going to die just like any other corn crops under those conditions.”
Many companies have been racing to roll out drought-tolerant crop technologies. The world’s largest seed company, Monsanto Co (MON.N), is conducting on-farm trials of its genetically modified drought-tolerant corn seed this spring.
Monsanto and rival seed companies have been pushing drought tolerance as a means to help increase production of key crops, particularly corn, as climate changes produce drier and warmer conditions in some growing areas.
Drought last year in Texas and parts of the central United States wreaked havoc on many crops.
But Gurian-Sherman said the leading drought tolerant corn option — Monsanto’s seed product — reduces yield loss by just 5 to 6 percent and only in areas of modest drought. He said he analyzed data Monsanto submitted to regulators as part of his research.
Conventional breeding has been improving yields under drought conditions by about 1 percent a year, on average, he said. Taking into account the number of years the biotech options take to develop, the millions of dollars spent on the research and the additional costs farmers pay for transgenic crops, the biotech “drought-tolerant” versions are inferior to conventional offerings, he said.
Gurian-Sherman said there is a dire need for more efficient use of water in agriculture, but the most critical needs are for improved irrigation methods and techniques like mulching of soils to hold in moisture as opposed to using biotech seeds.
Water use efficiency issues are not addressed by drought-tolerant crops, he said.
Overall, public policy and research needs to shift direction in a way that promotes sustainable agriculture and allows for more diversity in crop selection, chemical usage and water usage, Gurian-Sherman noted.
“Drought is incredibly important and so going forward we need to think about ways to try to mitigate the losses from drought and prevent them from getting worse,” he said.
“Biotech certainly has some successes, but if you look at the bigger picture … breeding and agronomy continue to way outperform biotech.”