Seed Maker Pioneer Races For Crops As Climate Changes

Achanging climate that many scientists fear will hurt global crop production means seed makers must work harder to meet food needs as world population grows by 30 per cent by 2050, a top world seed executive said.

“Agriculture production is moving to the North because those climates are becoming warmer. Some of those environments are also very conducive to some good agricultural production,” Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a unit of U.S. chemicals giant DuPont, told Reuters.

“But when you move north you’ve got less of a season, less sun, less heat units. Now you need to make hybrids and varieties that have shorter maturities but still generate the appropriate amount of yield,” Schickler said when asked about the company’s long-term growth strategy.

“Soils are also becoming more saline – so you’ve got to have crops that can tolerate more saline,” he added.

The need to increase crop yields is in the spotlight now across the globe. Food demand, always rising with population and wealth, has exploded in recent years as China and, to a lesser extent, India, speedily grow their economies. That has brought millions more hungry mouths with ample money to eat grain-fed beef, pork, poultry and dairy.

Worries about the shrinking “pie” of food supplies has led to a fresh spike in food prices, as seen in 2008. Corn and other grain prices are up at least 70 per cent in the past year, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization.

Yet demand for more food grains has come as biofuels have cut into grain use. More ominous are shrinking amounts of arable land with soils to grow wheat, corn, rice, oilseeds and other major crops. Climate, scientists say, is a big cause.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned years ago mankind is likely facing a future of crop-growing perils, starting with tropical zones growing too hot and dry.

A typical study, published this month in the respected journalScience,concludes that climate change has trimmed potential global wheat production 5.5 per cent and corn output 3.8 per cent over the last three decades.

MORE VOLATILITY

Extremes in weather – fears of things to come – tested world farmers in 2010 and this year looks little different. But Schickler said volatile weather is stock in trade for Pioneer.

“Clearly the volatility of climate is occurring at the same time climate is changing,” Schickler said.

“That is emblematic of what we have to deal with all the time … deliver better products that improve productivity,” he added. “You need to bring in defensive traits – whether it is for disease, insects, stalk strength, grain quality.”

Pioneer launched a new conventionally bred drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed in the western U.S. corn belt this spring that has about five per cent yield advantage over other varieties, which should help pave the way for expansion of the new molecular technology on other markets, such as Africa, Schickler said.

The next step will be a genetically modified (GMO) seed “to go after drought and heat tolerance, but that’s probably something more in the later part of this decade,” he said.

That GMO technology could be applied to other crops such as sorghum, soybeans or rice, he said, but added that it will be a decade or so before Pioneer has a GMO wheat seed for sale.

Both hybrids and GMO seed development are much further along in rice than wheat, Schickler said.

The first step in boosting rice has been hybridization through conventional plant cross-breeding. In China, about half the rice is grown from hybrids but in India only two to three per cent, he said. Scientists are working to add transgenic genes to rice to fight insects or add resistance to herbicides or drought, but no GMO rice is yet in commercial use by farmers.

“That’s why it is positioned as a strategic crop,” said Schickler. “Not only is it a big crop in Asia but there is so much we can do with it from a productivity standpoint, insect standpoint and water utilization – growers and consumers in Asia really need it.”

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