Scientist says drought-tolerant corn a “baby step” that does little for farmers

It would be better to plant conventional corn and improve agronomic practices than switch to “drought-tolerant” corn, says a veteran plant scientist.

“The technology has gotten a tremendous amount of attention. We think undue attention,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It is a modest benefit and a real benefit and a step forward. But it is really kind of a baby step.” Drought-tolerant corn “is going to be useful for maybe 15 to 20 per cent of the areas where moderate levels of drought are pretty predictable, places like Nebraska and Kansas,” said Gurian-Sherman, who served on an FDA biotech advisory subcommittee from 2002 to 2005.

“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.”

Companies are racing to roll out drought-tolerant crop technologies, including Monsanto, which is conducting on-farm trials 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. But Gurian-Sherman said the leading drought-tolerant corn option — Monsanto’s seed product — reduces yield loss by just five to six per cent and only in areas of modest drought. He said he analyzed data Monsanto submitted to regulators.

Conventional breeding has been improving yields under drought conditions by about one per cent 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.

A better approach would be to improve irrigation methods and adopt techniques such as mulching of soils to hold in moisture as opposed to using biotech seeds, Gurian-Sherman said.

“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.”

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