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    Greater China
     Oct 8, 2011

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China ploughs a new corn furrow
By Peter Lee

The world's major seed companies are trying to outrun skepticism and bad economics to dominate the world's seed supply with expensive proprietary products. Billions of dollars and the future of the world's food supply are at stake.

The Chinese government is caught between its desire to radically increase agricultural output and its fear of growing concerns by citizen activists over its lackadaisical enforcement of its food safety responsibilities.

As China struggles to cope with rocketing corn demand and a tightening international market, the spotlight has been turned on the DuPont Corporation and its "Xianyu" aka XY335 corn seed.

In a mere five years, XY335 has emerged as the dominant corn variety in north China. However, its rise has been dogged by

suspicions that one of its parent strains is genetically modified.

Now China's Ministry of Agriculture has floated the idea that its moratorium on commercial use of genetically modified (GM) seed would continue - with the exception of corn.

Maybe that would open the door to new GM strains of corn seed; and maybe that would shut the door on calls to investigate the allegation that GM corn is already growing in China's fields.

China still relies on wheat to make bread or noodles, with rice as a staple. But as its more prosperous citizens increase their meat consumption, China requires enormous amounts of corn to feed poultry and livestock.

A pound of rice from the field is a pound of rice on the table. A pound of wheat is a pound of bread.

But a pound of corn turns into half a pound of chicken; less than a quarter pound of pork; and only a couple ounces of beef.

If meat is to continue to come to the table, enormous amounts of corn are required.

And, if a nation's government has decided to participate in the great ethanol boondoggle, then additional millions of tons of corn are required as feedstock.

China, while trying to rein in its runaway ethanol industry, found itself producing 155 million tons of corn in 2011 - while consuming 156 million tons.

China, which has long since abandoned the objective of self-sufficiency in soybeans, now faces the prospect of becoming a significant net importer of corn.

Ironically, China's loss of food security in the 1970s was a key factor in the economic and agricultural reforms that transformed China. Now, as a result of its economic boom, it must decide whether it is to rely on the international market for an even greater fraction of its food needs.

The current policy for grains is 95% self-sufficiency; but it looks like the government is considering easing that guideline to 90%. [1]

It is also looking to boost corn output.

An important potential source of increased output is improved yields: more corn per hectare. According to the agribusiness industry, the savior has arrived: genetically modified seed.

GM corn, produced by Monsanto, DuPont and a variety of other genetics companies, has taken the US farm belt by storm.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 88% of American corn fields are planted with GM corn. Whether or not this is a good thing generates a lot of debate and it is by no means clear that GM corn has accounted for increased yields.

Since the 1930s, corn yields have improved at a remarkably steady rate of 1.6 bushels/acre/per year in the United States. There has been no marked acceleration since the 1990s, when GM corn was first introduced.

An important factor is, perhaps, the fact that the genetic modifications implemented to date in corn (and, for that matter, cotton and soybeans, the other two major markets) do not increase the yield potential of the seed.

Increasing yield potential is still a matter of painstaking traditional breeding practices in the field, not the insertion of miracle high-yield DNA into corn germ plasm in the laboratory.

Genetic modification deals solely with the mission of "protecting the yield potential" of superior hybrid varieties.

In practical terms, this means playing some interesting tricks with the corn genome to make it easier to deal with the weeds and critters that afflict the crop, so that less of it gets spoiled and the farmer is able to gain the full advantage of the superior (natural) genetics.

GM seed began with a rather crude concept: herbicide tolerance.

It involved modifying the genome of a broad-leaf crop, soybean, so it could survive a dousing of herbicide that targets broad-leaf weeds.

It is no coincidence that the biggest players in genetically modified seed are also the world's biggest producers of herbicides: Monsanto, DuPont (which purchased the venerable hybrid corn outfit Pioneer), and Dow.

The big winner was Monsanto, which placed big early bets in biotech, perfected and licensed the broadleaf herbicide-tolerant gene, and also managed to sell a lot of its broadleaf herbicide, glyphosphate, aka Roundup along the way. At its peak in 2008, Roundup contributed US$2 billion in profit (not revenue) to Monsanto's bottom line.

Corn got into the GM act in a big way with the development of Bt corn. "Bt" stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that causes caterpillars' guts to explode when they eat it. Caterpillars (like the European corn borer, which afflicts corn in the US as well and China's headache, the Asian corn borer) can reduce corn yields by 5% to 30% depending on the degree of infestation.

Genes that enabled corn plants to produce Bt were inserted into the genome. In fact, they were inserted multiple times, in a process known as stacking, so they would produce Bt in different parts of the plant and deal death to various underground as well as aerial pests at different stages of their life cycles.

A milestone of sorts was reached with the release of "Genuity Smartstax", a Monsanto/Dow joint effort that piled on six varieties of Bt expression with two additional herbicide tolerance traits on top for good measure.

The biggest enemy of the GM focus on weeds and pests is Charles Darwin, specifically natural selection.

Resistance to herbicides and Bt is inevitable. In fact, significant resistance to Bt can arise in a bug population in two generations, and then it can spread through a population like wildfire. When one considers that corn borers can go through as many as seven generations in a single growing season, the stage is set for some rather alarming developments.

Government regulators in the United States were keenly aware of the potential problems.

On the herbicide side, frequent rotation to non-Roundup crops is encouraged so that the weeds are not continuously exposed to the herbicide.

On the Bt side, it's even more complicated. The US Department of Agriculture wanted growers using Bt seed to create bug refuges equivalent to 50% of their acreage. These refuges, where non-Bt crops are grown, would sustain a population of non-Bt resistant pests that would mate with the evolving Bt-resistant pests across the fence and dilute the gene pool.

The seed companies were not enthralled with the idea that they would be structurally barred from 50% of the corn market. They successfully lobbied for a cut in the refuge percentage to 20%.

Acting on the corporate credo "More is Never Enough", Dow then argued that Genuity-Smartstax kills pests in multiple ways and inhibits the development of resistance. The US Environmental Protection Agency agreed, at least tentatively, and conditionally approved further reduction of the refuge area to 5% for stacked-gene corn. [2]

For those who place their faith in the virtue of corporations, the efficiency of the marketplace and the wisdom of the farmer, it is an unfortunate fact of life that herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant seed, designed to make a farmer's life easier, encourages him or her to divert attention, energy, care and capital away from important herbicide and pesticide resistance issues to other aspects of the agribusiness operation - like increasing acreage. 

Continued 1 2 3


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2. India, China lead gold rush

3. Afghans skeptical US will change Pakistan

4. Why is USA targeting Pakistan?

5. Why 2012 will shake up Asia and the world

6. India promises to prop up Karzai

7. Afghanistan's energy war

8. Pressure builds on Iran at nuclear watchdog

9. Confucian confusion in cross-strait politics

10. Delhi immobilized by Manipur blockade

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Oct 6, 2011)


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