US and Canada approve new multi-trait GM corn

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Monsanto

Monsanto and Dow Chemical Company have received regulatory approval for a new variety of genetically modified (GM) corn, which they say could increase whole farm yields by five to ten percent.

Corn is widely used in the food industry, not only as a grain, but in a wide variety of processed foods as a starch, sweetener, oil and as the basis for many snack foods.

The new SmartStax corn seeds combine eight different genes for herbicide tolerance and insect protection, a combination that has come about as a result of a collaborative research agreement between Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences that was signed in 2007.

They claim that the approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) puts the release of the corn seeds on track for planting next year. Monsanto said that it expects the corn to be planted on three to four million acres of land in 2010, which would make it the largest ever adoption of a GM corn seed variety.

In a conference call with investors on Monday, Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer and executive vice president, said that SmartStax could account for 50 to 65 million acres of American corn within the next five to six years.

According to USDA figures, the total area planted with corn in the US has averaged around 85m acres over the past five years. Of that 85 percent is genetically modified, compared with 47 percent five years ago.

Monsanto and Dow have not yet revealed how they plan to price the new seeds.

Reduced refuge

Farmers who adopt the new seeds will also be able plant more land with the herbicide resistant, insect-protected corn and leave less refuge land – that which is planted with crops that lack insect protection traits.

At the moment, US farmers are allowed to plant up to 80 percent of their acreage with insect resistant crops, but are required to plant the other 20 percent – known as the refuge – with non-protected crops in order to reduce the possibility that insects could evolve to deal with the trait. But because the new technology contains a combination of traits, the US and Canadian agencies said that it is not likely that insects could develop resistance to them. They will therefore allow farmers to reduce the refuge area from 20 percent to five percent, thereby enabling increased yields and less insecticide use.

Fraley said: “This is a key early step in our commitment to helping farmers sustainably double yields by 2030 to meet the increasing demands for grain for food, feed and fuel. This reduced refuge will be easier for farmers and will further reduce insecticide use while reducing grower risks and enhancing the long-term durability of the technology."

He added that on the remaining five percent of refuge land, farmers would typically use “a product with Roundup Ready without the bug-control traits or use a non-traited hybrid.”

Following the announcement, the National Association of Corn Growers, a major representative body for the US corn industry, said it was “pleased the US Environmental Protection Agency will allow farmers the ability to improve upon the environmental benefits from biotechnology corn.”

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