Page 1 of 3 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
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
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
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%. 
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
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
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
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. 
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.