World's largest indoor cornfield

Last week 1,600 of biotech's biggest companies gathered in Chicago to show off their latest hot research and products at Bio2006, the annual meeting sponsored by the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO). Over 18,000 people came and surprisingly. very few protesters showed up. Maybe they've moved on to other causes.

Discussions and presentations during the convention covered a vast array of topics, ranging from how biotechnology can be used to fight diseases, help prevent terrorism and improve the environment, to applying biotechnology to provide food security, improve food nutrition, enhance industrial processes and accelerate development and production of new medicines.

But of all the bio-based super-cool research on display, the one thing people oohed and aaahed over most was the tiny one-fifth acre plot of corn plopped down in the middle of McCormick Place, Chicago's massive indoor trade show arena.



Most participants at last week's Bio2006 meeting in Chicago weren't sure these plants were real or synthetic. (Answer: real).
Dubbed as the world's largest indoor cornfield, it represents a microcosm of the 222 million acres of biotech crops planted by some 8.5 million farmers worldwide. According to whybiotech.org, 1.25 acres feeds one person for a full year. To make the case for genetically modified crops, whybiotech claims $5.7 billion worth of crops are destroyed globally by corn rootworms and corn borers - two pests that can be stopped by genetic manipulation of seed.

In 2005, U.S. farmers grew more biotech crops than any other country - 123 million acres, or 55% of the world's biotech plantings.

"People come by the corn field and stop to touch it to see if it's real," a spokesperson for whybiotech told me.

New seed trait deal
Several companies used Bio2006 as a launching pad to announce new biotech deals. Seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and rival Switzerland-based biotechnology company Syngenta AG announced a joint venture, GreenLeaf Genetics LLC, that will license the sale of newly developed corn and soybean seed genetics and biotech traits. This will provide farmers in Canada and the United States access to some newly developed seed with specific genetic traits for weed and insect control and improved yields.

The two companies also agree to cross-license certain corn and soybean traits that each company will market independently under their own seed brands. The agreement includes rights for Syngenta to market the new Optimum GAT glyphosate tolerance trait recently developed by DuPont.

Some observers note that the move targets a specific competitor - Monsanto. "Are we competing with Monsanto? You bet," says Mike Mack, chief operating officer, Syngenta Seeds. "We're going to jointly look forward to driving Optimum GAT and for Syngenta alone, we're excited and enthused about this technology. In 2009, when introduced, it will be the leading technology for soybeans, and Roundup Ready will have the No. 2 spot."

Jeff Cox, Syngenta's Head for global corn and soybeans, told me the companies' seed division is core to future growth strategy. Right now they have 13 to 14% market share in the United States, and the new deal with Pioneer is a way to grow that business.

Jeff Cox, global head of Syngenta's corn and soybean seed division, says the company is working on drought-tolerance, nitrogen utilization, and special corn hybrids designed for ethanol.

"If we do the right things on the grower level, they will reward us for that," he says. "Our objective is to become the number one choice in the market. We have no aspirations to stay a follower in the market."

Changing marketplace
"Our job now is increasing yields, and growing crops in an environment where they did not grow as well before," he says. "We're expanding traits in drought tolerance, better Nitrogen utilization, and how to produce more in a sustainable manner."

Cox notes that while corn and soybeans are plentiful at the moment, increasing use of biofuels will cause more intense competition between crops.

"That's the challenge going forward," he says. "How do we produce more of these crops in a sustainable way in different parts of the world? However, we've got more acres where we can grow, plus upscale breeding and the use of GMOs, so it's a promising outlook."

Another challenge, says Cox, is channeling crops into proper markets, without co-mingling. "It's going to be a continuing issue," he says. "Even though (GMOs) have been shown completely safe, we're going to have to find ways to manage this, to be sure our farmers continue to thrive."

He envisions a 'channel industry' serving particular markets, "but it will only happen with the proper incentives in place," he adds. "It will only occur when the markets are small and easy to differentiate or large enough to justify on an economic basis.

Food companies are driving more and more planting decisions. Case in point: low linoleic soybeans, which will reduce the need for partial hydrogenation of soybean oil, helping food companies reduce the presence of trans fatty acids in their products. You may have only heard whispers about low lin by now, but in three years acreage will likely be in the millions.

To get to that point, farmers must be given incentives to plant crops that so far, have not proven to be consistent yielders. "There's a lot of facilities, grain elevators, ready to do this and a lot of farmers are already doing this," says Cox. "But there needs to be value for the growers.

"One day you'll wake up and people will grow these crops consistently," predicts Cox. "The industry is moving that way, towards more consistent yields, but to get it to a commercial volume it takes a 5 to 8 year transition."
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