WOODLAND, Calif. — The worst U.S. drought in half a century is withering the nation's corn crop, but it's a fertile opportunity for makers of genetically modified crops.
Agricultural biotechnology companies have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing plants that can withstand the effects of a prolonged dry spell. Monsanto Co., based in St. Louis, has received regulatory approval for DroughtGard, a corn variety that contains the first genetically modified trait for drought resistance.
Seed makers, such as Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. of Johnston, Iowa, and Swiss company Syngenta, are already selling drought-tolerant corn varieties, conceived through conventional breeding.
At stake: a $12-billion U.S. seed market, with corn comprising the bulk of sales. The grain is used in such things as animal feed, ethanol and food. The push is also on to develop soybean, cotton and wheat that can thrive in a world that's getting hotter and drier.
"Drought is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges for our growers," said Jeff Schussler, senior research manager for Pioneer, the agribusiness arm of DuPont. "We are trying to create products for farmers to be prepared for that."
Their efforts come amid concerns about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and the unforeseen consequences of this genetic tinkering. Californians in November will vote on Proposition 37, which would require foods to carry labels if they were genetically modified. The majority of corn seed sold is modified to resist pests and reap higher yields.
Opponents say the label would unnecessarily dampen further development that is intended to feed a growing global population dependent on the U.S., the largest exporter of corn and soybean.
"Trying to create drought-tolerant crops is not going to be easy to do," said Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis. "We certainly need all the tools [available] to do that, and that includes conventional breeding and adding transgenic traits. We don't need to stigmatize these approaches."
To that end, Monsanto and DuPont, among others, have donated millions of dollars to the "No on 37" group, which has raised about $25 million to combat the labeling effort.
Those in support of labeling say the law is merely intended to give consumers more information about the food they eat — and to draw attention to GMO ingredients.
"I find it really funny that [opponents] are so scared of labeling," said Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley professor of microbial ecology. "I'm not saying that every GMO is deadly, but I'm also recognizing that we shouldn't be so glib about it and look the other way and hope for the best."
Despite objections from anti-GMO activists, biotech companies are going full steam ahead on developing and patenting drought-tolerant plants they can sell at a premium.
"We as a research group are focusing on this 100% of the time," Pioneer's Schussler said. "A year like this, where you have this really widespread drought over a large portion of the Midwest, is very unusual."
Just outside Sacramento, in the small city of Woodland, Pioneer operates a research facility that helped develop its Optimum AquaMax line. The corn hybrids are touted to improve yields as much as 7% compared with other seeds.
The facility, which looks like a large corn farm, is dedicated largely to drought research. Here, researchers evaluate hundreds of genes yearly, looking for ones they hope can be used in future product lines.
The roughly 300-acre center, set amid flat farmland in the Sacramento Valley, is a hodgepodge of corn plots undergoing stress treatments to see how well they fare under water-limited conditions.
One well-watered corn plot is a lush shade of green, its 12-foot-tall plants heavy with thick corncobs. A couple of hundred yards away sits a plot denied water during the flowering stage to see how drought might affect it. The result was clear: stunted, yellow and withered plants with few kernels per cob.
But for all their efforts, researchers say even drought-hardy varieties are not guaranteed to survive an extended drought.
"There's only so much you can do," said Renee Lafitte, a research fellow at Pioneer's Woodland research facility who has studied drought tolerance for almost three decades. "This is not cactus."
"What we're trying to provide is insurance against these types of weather changes," Lafitte said.
Monsanto is in the final stages of field tests of its DroughtGard hybrid. About 250 corn growers in the western Plains planted about 10,000 acres of the seed this year to test its effectiveness. The harvest is now underway.
Growers have reported that the seed has performed relatively well compared with competitors' hybrids, said Mark Edge, marketing lead for the product line.
The new lines of corn "don't have great yields, but they're going to have yields," he said. "There is no silver bullet to these complex issues."
DroughtGard, which was specifically engineered for the arid climates of Kansas, Texas, South Dakota and other states in the region, is expected to be commercially available next year, Edge said.
The new lines of drought-tolerant crops are only the beginning. Scientists have no plans to let up on research to improve these first-generation seeds and develop a corn plant to protect corn growers' bottom lines.
U.S. farmers took advantage of an early planting season because of favorable weather conditions and planted 96.4 million acres of corn this spring, the most acreage since 1937.
That led to huge profit gains for corn-seed sellers: Monsanto saw its second-quarter corn seed business grow to $2.82 billion, up almost 18% from the year-earlier period. DuPont reported a 13% rise in second-quarter sales for its agriculture division to $3.4 billion, led by its corn sales.
But the intense heat of this summer's drought destroyed more than half the corn crop. The last time the harvest was expected to be this bad was in 1995.
Corn prices have set records ahead of an expected shortage that will ripple down to consumers, who will pay more for their food this fall and into next year.
Improvements are slow to come because there isn't a single gene to fight drought's effects, said Mitch Tuinstra, an agronomy professor at Purdue University in Indiana.
"Will we ever get to the point that corn will thrive in a year like this? No.... But I don't think there's false hopes that we're going to improve the productivity of maize," Tuinstra said.
Among improvements that can be made to a plant are breeding corn stalks that grow longer, more efficient roots. Scientists are also working to better synchronize plant pollination during flowering.
"Our goal is, of course, to keep up with Mother Nature," Pioneer's Schussler said.
Skeptics of GMO crops say Monsanto and other firms may cause more harm than good, particularly to the environment.
Studies have shown "super" weeds have begun choking millions of acres of farmland. These weeds have developed resistance to certain herbicides — much like the genetically manipulated corn and soybean varieties that dominate the seed market.
Additionally, companies should urge farmers to plant a wider variety of crops and work on improving soil fertility, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environment Program.
But profit-driven firms are focused on seed sales, Gurian-Sherman said — not necessarily improving farming practices.
"This can potentially make a big difference," he said. "But these kinds of approaches are really not of great interest to companies. There are no products involved."