“In the next 10 years you’re going to see water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, more efficient plants that can just grow better, period.”
BASF’S MANAGING DIRECTOR OF PLANT SCIENCE
BASF has invested $1.5 billion developing genetically modified (GM) crops and so far hasn’t earned a cent. But it expects that will soon change, a senior company official says.
“That’s a lot of money, a lot of faith, but we are showing good progress,” Jonathan Bryant, BASF’s managing director of plant science told reporters at BASF’s North American Crop Protection Division headquarters April 8.
For example, a drought-tolerant corn will almost certainly hit the marketplace if it gets regulatory approval in 2012, Bryant said. However, if it does, farmers will buy that corn seed from Monsanto.
“It’s kind of the ‘Intel Inside’ approach to the way we’re approaching this,” Bryant said, referring to the computer chip maker.
In 2007, BASF and Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, signed an agreement to develop GM crops together.
“It’s not only the largest collaboration BASF has ever signed, it’s the largest initiative in plant biotech period, bar none,” Bryant said.
Each company works independently to find genes to improve corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. They hope to avoid duplication that way. Partnering with Monsanto makes sense because it has a lot of germplasm already.
In addition to drought-tolerant corn, BASF and Monsanto expect to release a high-yielding soybean by mid-decade, Bryant said.
“In the next 10 years you’re going to see water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, more efficient plants that can just grow better, period,” he said. “In the next five years you’ll see the omega-3 fatty acids (produced in GM crops). These are in the future, but it’s getting to the point where it’s not that much in the future.”
BASF is developing herbicide-tolerant crops too, but Bryant said other GM trait enhancements will eventually be bigger than today’s crop protection sector.
BASF’s goal is to help farmers boost yields with the same or less inputs, including water and nutrients. The first version of drought-tolerant corn is aimed at the western corn belt, which tends to be dry.
“We want to raise the (yield) bar by six to 10 per cent with this first gene (which comes from a bacterium),” Bryant said.
The insertion of one gene in a variety of rice has boosted yields 50 per cent so far in plot trials. If the variety does half that well under field conditions, Bryant said he would be ecstatic.
Improving the feed value of corn is another goal.
“People have been breeding it for yield for a hundred years and they really haven’t taken much care with what the crop actually produced – the components per acre,” Bryant said.
Sixty to 80 per cent of the world’s corn is consumed by livestock. Improving corn’s feed value could reduce the cost of livestock production by requiring less soybean meal supplementation. It could also lower the nitrogen shed in animal feces.
“The animal will thank you by growing better and faster,” Bryant said.
There are 40,000 to 50,000 genes in a plant. Figuring out what each does isn’t simple. To speed up the assessment BASF has an automated system that moves plants in clear plastic pots through a machine that photographs their progress. Image analysis accurately measures and compares development.
A similar process is used to measure chemical reactions within plants, allowing BASF to assess 10,000 plants a year.
“These are very powerful tools to help us discover which genes might work for yield and stress,” Bryant said. “And both of those are pretty much unique in the industry and give us the real edge. It makes us feel comfortable as a leader in plant biotechnology gene discovery.”
While GM crop acres continue to grow, progress has been slow in the European Union (EU). But Bryant said the EU’s approval last month of BASF’s GM Amflora potato – for starch production, not human consumption – is encouraging. The potato will be seeded in Germany, the Czech Republic and Sweden this spring.
It’s the first GM crop approved in the EU in 12 years and only the second GM crop approved in the EU. The first was Monsanto’s Bt corn in 1998.
According to Bryant a recent survey showed a majority of EU consumers are willing to accept GM crops because they can help feed the world while conserving resources.
BASF is also interested in developing GM wheat and recognizes consumers must be on side, Bryant said.
“We know there is no point having a value chain that doesn’t accept your product,” he said. “It’s like pushing a string up a hill…”
Segregating conventional and GM wheat isn’t practical given the huge volumes involved and the cost, Bryant said.
“I think you’d have to see a broad acceptance (of GM wheat in the market),” he said.