Q&A: High As an Elephant's Eye--and Drought-Resistant, Too

Pioneer Hi-Bred's Rick McConnell chats about bioengineered crops

Genetics may seem like a 21st century science, but in agriculture, it's as old as the hills. For centuries, growers have tracked crop yields and plant heredity to crossbreed ever-more-productive strains of wheat, rice, and other staples. These days, though, crop research is conducted more often in a lab or high-tech greenhouse than in a field. And genomics--the study and manipulation of an organism's genetic material--is the hottest tool in the search for tastier tomatoes, richer soybeans, or less thirsty corn.

Indeed, in the research labs of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a unit of DuPont (DPMI ) that is the world's largest seed company, drought resistance is the latest Holy Grail. Heading the quest is Richard L. McConnell, a PhD geneticist and son of a farming family, who was appointed as Pioneer's president in September, 2000. A 28-year company veteran, McConnell typically directs upwards of 15% of annual revenues into research and development. In 2001, sales totaled $1.9 billion. The growing share spent on genomic tools and research has made Pioneer the world's top seller of bioengineered seeds.

Pioneer's investment is part of a flood of public and private R&D spending that is transforming plant science--sometimes with alarming consequences. In late 2000, for example, the whole business of genetically modified foods got a black eye when StarLink, a feed corn Aventis CropScience (AVE ) developed using bacterial genes, found its way into human food. McConnell is quick to point out that Pioneer's work, as well as most plant genomics worldwide, centers on understanding and modifying a plant's existing genetic structure, not introducing foreign genes. Such research got a boost this spring when the rice genome was decoded by two research groups, one led by Swiss biotech giant Syngenta (SYT ), the other by the Beijing Genomics Institute together with the University of Washington. The rice genome, says McConnell, will help scientists understand and improve the world's other major cereal crops.

McConnell recently talked about the next chapter in the farm-field genetic revolution with BusinessWeek Correspondent Julie Forster, at Pioneer's R&D center not far from its corporate headquarters in Des Moines.

Q: The map of the rice genome is a landmark in genomics. How will that information help plant science or Pioneer?

A: Regardless of where you find it, DNA is DNA. If we know a sequence of DNA in the rice plant is responsible for a specific characteristic, there's a good chance a similar sequence in a corn plant is responsible for that same characteristic. Our scientists use many sources of information--like the rice genome, and information we gather on our own--to determine what DNA is responsible for the traits in corn or soybeans. The more we understand these crops on the molecular level, the greater the opportunity to give our customers the full benefit of genetic potential that exists within them.

Q: Farm output has grown dramatically over the past 100 years. Why, then, do we need to continue this process?

A: Farmers are trying to be as efficient as possible because commodity prices have stayed relatively flat for 50 years. During that period, we've had tremendous increases in productivity. That has all benefited consumers when you think about food prices. If we hadn't increased yield over that time, food price inflation would be tremendous. We have to continue to increase yields per acre on cultivated land. Otherwise, population increases will force us to put more, often drought-prone, marginal land into production. We're better off improving production on existing cultivated land.

Q: How productive is the average farmer today, compared with 20 years ago?

A: Pioneer has increased yields per acre on average about 1.5 to 2 bushels per acre per year in that period. The average yield in the U.S. right now is about 135-140 bushels per acre on corn. We've got corn products out there with much more genetic potential than that, especially with the right weather and management practices. One farmer in eastern Iowa hit 408 bushels per acre last year. From a genetics point of view, we've done a tremendous job, but the limiting factors are weather extremes, pests, and sticking with best management practices. The opportunity to raise productivity even more is still out there.

Q: Do the weather extremes we've had in recent years make your job more difficult?

A: They create challenges. That's where the next generation of technology is really beginning to help us. We think, for example, that the trait for drought resistance is controlled by more than one gene. Now we're looking for other multi-gene traits, such as heat- and cold-tolerance.

Q: Knowing what genes do is one thing. Harnessing them is another. When will we see products based on all of this?

A: We've made gradual progress breeding for drought stress over the years. I started out in Nebraska and Kansas, where we can withhold irrigation on research fields to create really severe drought stress. Using that kind of testing regime over a long period of time, we're gradually isolating more drought-tolerant plants. With biotechnology, we can start to understand what's going on inside the plant.

Q: Which crops are you making drought-tolerant?

A: Probably the crop we've had the most experience with in terms of drought stress is sorghum, a grass-like plant related to corn. Sorghum is historically grown in drought-prone areas, whether it's the southern U.S. or India. We're trying to understand what--physiologically and genetically--helps sorghum to be drought-tolerant. We can learn from that to make corn more drought-tolerant. That's the beauty of the science.

Q: Where do you see a particular need for this?

A: In areas such as western Kansas or the Texas panhandle, where they have been historically irrigating, it's getting more costly to pump water. If they can get by with three or four fewer irrigation applications during growing season, that's a huge cost benefit to a grower. Even here in Iowa, we'll go through periods of time when we won't get rainfall for three weeks or longer and the crop will be under stress. If the crop can mine the existing moisture in the soil more efficiently or survive those periods of time and still produce high yields, that's what we're looking for.

Q: Cold-tolerant crops have already come a long way. Where do we stand now?

A: Corn has moved a long way north from where it was originally adapted. When I first started working with Pioneer, mid-Minnesota was almost the limit of where corn could be grown. Now we're up into Canada, around Winnipeg, and as far south as Texas or Georgia. That's around 12 different maturity zones.

Q: And you've achieved this using biotechnology?

A: We've also used traditional plant breeding, so it's not all biotechnology. I'm not even sure I would say genomics is biotechnology in a classical sense. There are differences between moving a gene from one plant species to another vs. using these technologies simply to identify and enhance the expression of a gene within a given crop. For example, genomics helps us identify genes within the corn genome that we don't know as much about as we'd like to.

Q: Yet the public--in the U.S. and Europe, in particular--remains nervous about genetically altered foods. Is this a long-term challenge?

A: How the public's acceptance of genetically enhanced organisms plays out over time is a concern. It would be a real shame to see this tremendous progress that's been made in science not be used.

Q: Where do you see agriculture heading now?

A: Historically, agriculture has been based on the commodity market. I think we're getting close to a fork in the road today where we'll still have a commodity market for the grain, but it's going to be very high-volume business, with razor-thin margins. The farmers will have to be really on top of their operation to continue to make money. The other fork in the road is value-added agriculture. There's no question that we can create more value in the grain produced. The challenge is linking that grain with the appropriate end-users--whether it's a livestock feeder, industrial processor, or foodmaker.

Q: So are you beginning to sell more products to farmers so they can cater to niche markets?

A: We're seeing the beginning of that. For example, probably 85% of the corn chips made today come from Pioneer corn hybrids. That's because we work with Frito-Lay to learn about their dry milling process and to see what corn hybrids would make the best products. We've come back and worked on the yield and agronomic performance and the grain type that would work best for Frito-Lay's corn chips. And that's all without biotechnology.

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