Monsanto executive sets goal to develop new strains of crops

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 | 4:44 p.m. CDT; updated 6:50 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

CREVE COEUR — Monsanto Co. Chief Executive Hugh Grant set a bold goal for the company on Wednesday, promising to develop new strains of corn, soybeans and cotton that can yield twice as much grain and fiber per acre while consuming just two-thirds as much water by the year 2030.

Grant announced the initiative during a company meeting without laying out specific strategies or initiatives Monsanto would employ to reach the goal. He said afterward that Monsanto would rely on its current research and development team that is developing crops resistant to drought and pests.

“If we succeed in doubling yields, it absolutely changes the opportunity for food availability,” Grant said.

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, made its announcement against the backdrop of rising food prices and tight grain inventories worldwide. U.S. and European policies that encourage the use of crops for biofuels such as ethanol are coming under increasing attack for tightening grain supplies even as food riots break out in some countries.

Grant said Monsanto’s new initiative will show that farmers can grow enough corn and soybeans to supply a booming biofuels industry while still providing enough feed for the livestock industry and human consumption.

A key part of realizing the goal is breeding crops that need less water to survive, he said.

“You double yields while avoiding chopping down another tree or draining another swamp,” he said.

While grain yields have been relatively flat over the past decade, it’s possible they could double over the next 22 years, said Michael Aide, chairman of the Southeast Missouri State University Department of Agriculture.

Farmers in southeast Missouri, for example, can grow about 200 bushels of corn per acre, far more than double what they could grow during World War II, he said. Over the past 60 years, yield increases have come in big jumps when new technologies such as artificial fertilizer were introduced.

Aide said genetic engineering could create such a yield jump.

“The genetic potential of the corn plant is not yet fully realized,” Aide said. “I’m not saying that (Monsanto is) actually going to do it. But I’m saying it’s not outside the realm of possibility.”

Monsanto plans to increase its grain yields gradually, Grant said, as the company introduces new strains of crops. The company will use advanced breeding techniques to develop heartier, more fruitful crops. At the same time, it will use genetic engineering to give the plants the ability to withstand pests such as corn worms.

“It will be the constant march forward, bettering the genetics,” Grant said. “The biotechnology protects it.”

The company also plans to donate $10 million over five years to help public-sector scientists develop better-yielding strains of wheat and rice. Monsanto hasn’t focused on breeding and selling those crops, but Grant said improving them is crucial to reducing world hunger.

Monsanto’s stock dropped $1.54 Wednesday to close at $131.60 per share.

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