When federal regulators gave the green light last year to a variety of drought tolerant corn developed by Monsanto Co., the Creve Coeur-based biotechnology giant became the first company to deliver on a much touted promise to provide farmers with a crop that could withstand drought.
But a report issued Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy organization, said the genetically engineered product fails to conserve water and is only slightly more drought tolerant than its traditionally bred counterparts in severe drought conditions.
“We think it will be of very little use to farmers,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and author of the report. “At the same time there seem to be conventional products that are as good or better.”
With farmers around the world facing greater – and increasingly erratic – drought, the biotechnology industry has labored to develop crops that will withstand dry conditions. Monsanto and its competitors say that achieving “more crop per drop” has been a major goal, and say they have invested heavily in research. (Some industry-sponsored research has put the price tag of developing a genetically engineered crop trait at about $136 million.)
The industry's insect- and herbicide-resistant crops now dominate agriculture, with nearly 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. containing genetically engineered traits. But achieving a drought tolerant corn has proven more difficult and complex as a greater variety of genes and conditions control the plant's responses to drought.
The report, which looked at data submitted by the industry to regulators and at a U.S. Department of Agriculture assessment, found that the Monsanto product, known as DroughtGard, will “confer only modest protection against drought — about 6 percent more than non-engineered varieties used in Monsanto's test plots five or six years ago.” Classical breeding, meanwhile, along with improved farming practices have improved drought tolerance by about 1 percent a year over the past several decades.
The report also said that the DroughtGard corn “does not appear to have improved water efficiency” – which, it underscored, is distinct from drought resistance.
“Drought tolerance does not equate with water use efficiency,” said Gurian-Sherman. “Just because a crop is drought-tolerant doesn't mean it's using less water.”
The report questions the industry's dedication to developing crops that conserve water – a growing concern in agriculture, which uses an estimated 70 percent of the world's diminishing water resources.
“When the industry is interested in a trait, they do thousands and thousands of trials,” Gurian-Sherman said. “For water use efficiency there have been nine trials since 1990, so all the claims about the industry working on water use efficiency aren't supportable.”
As the Senate takes up the Farm Bill, perhaps as early as this week, Gurian-Sherman and others are urging lawmakers to include more funding for public research of conventional breeding.
“We're not suggesting genetic engineering doesn't have a role. We think it gets disproportionate attention as a way to solve agriculture's challenges,” he said. “We need a public sector breeding program to do what these companies don't.”
Currently, DroughtGard is being grown on roughly 10,000 acres in the western Great Plains, on a test basis. Monsanto said the product could be introduced commercially by 2013.
In a statement, the company said, “Monsanto's approach to the challenge of drought integrates conventional breeding, targeted agronomic practices and the drought-tolerant trait. This integrated systems approach provides greater choice and benefits to farmers than any one of these approaches alone.”
Karen Batra, a spokesman for BIO, the biotechnology industry's leading trade group, said it was too soon to say whether drought-tolerant crops have a promising future.
“We've proven, since biotech crops first were approved in the mid-1990s, that the technology gets more efficient. ... It's not going to be perfect off the bat,” Batra said. “It would be absurd to think that this has to be an either/or debate. If you look at all the challenges being faced by farmers all over the world, it would be foolish to not research all the possibilities.”
David Lightfood, a geneticist at Southern Illinois University, said that genetic engineering can work in tandem with traditional breeding.
"Biotech solutions to drought, water deficit, are different from conventional breeding and complimentary to it," he explained. "Breeders can maximize the benefit of new transgenes over decades, as they did with Roundup Ready -- not the best germplasm at first, then steady improvement for 20 years."