Dow AgroSciences gears up to fight for share in biotech food market
(Indianapolis Star, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 28--Inside bright greenhouses at Dow AgroSciences' sprawling Northwestside complex, corn plants grow tall and lush, with no signs of rootworms, corn borers or other pests that munch away at crops and farmers' profits.
The corn is grown from biotech seeds that share genes from different types of corn to produce a plant able to resist the toughest pests and weed killers.
Demand from farmers is brisk. To keep up, Dow is growing and harvesting corn plants as fast as it can, even expanding into winter production in Hawaii, Argentina and Chile.
"We're bulking up, but it will be another two or three years before we can meet demand," said Thomas R. Wiltrout, global business leader for Dow's plant genetics.
Already consumers are gobbling up genetically altered ingredients in foods from chips to desserts, probably without realizing it, creating a $6 billion industry that shows no sign of slowing.
Dow is positioning itself to grab a bigger share. The company, better known for its agricultural chemicals, is a small player in the corn seed market, but wants to change that. Over the next three years, it wants to produce a super seed with eight genetic traits to fight pests and weed killers on multiple fronts, significantly more than the three traits now available on genetically modified seeds.
It is teaming up with agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. to share genetic traits now available only in products from one company or the other.
It's the latest step in the wave of genetically modified foods, changing the way farmers grow crops and how consumers feed their families.
Supporters call genetically modified crops a biotechnology marvel that helps farmers produce more food from America's shrinking farmland and help feed the planet.
But critics call the crops "frankenfoods" -- unnatural, scary, and possibly dangerous to human health and biodiversity. They want more testing and more regulations.
But love it or hate it, genetically engineered food is nearly everywhere. Around the world, genetically modified crops wind up as ingredients that go into thousands of processed foods, such as corn chips, frozen pizza, chocolate pudding and packaged muffins.
Dow says the biotech crops are safe for human and animal health, and do not pose any environmental threat. Some experts agree.
"We believe the currently marketed genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and have some benefits to the environment and farmers, and Americans should embrace those," said Gregory Jaffe, who oversees biotech issues for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy and educational organization based in Washington.
Dow is counting on the eight-gene combination, called SmartStax, to help it gain market share at the expense of larger competitors, including Pioneer Hi-Bred, AgReliant Genetics and Syngenta.
But Dow needs to gain support worldwide to sell more of the biotech seeds. While U.S. consumers are supporting biotech foods -- or at least not actively resisting them -- Europeans are less willing to embrace such products.
Some surveys show more than 70 percent of Europeans are against biotech food. For years, many European countries banned the importation of genetically altered foods. But just last week, the European Commission approved Dow's biotech corn for use in animal feeds, for human consumption and other uses. But it did not lift its ban against raising the crops in the European Union.
Dow and Monsanto hope to launch their super seeds by 2010. The seeds will represent a combination of traits from the two companies, such as Dow Agro's insect-resistant Herculex and Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.
As part of the process, plant scientists take the DNA from one organism, modify it in a laboratory, and insert it into another organism.
"We've already developed our traits. Monsanto has already developed theirs. So it's simply a matter of putting them together," Wiltrout said.
The benefit, according to Dow, is that a single corn plant can fight off a wider range of pests in numerous ways.
"So it will be very difficult for the insects to win because they're being attacked on multiple fronts," said Steven A. Thompson, head of Dow Agro's research and development for global seeds and traits.
A growing number of farmers, in Indiana and around the U.S. are rushing into biotech crops. Of the 6.5 million acres of corn grown in Indiana this year, 59 percent is the biotech variety, up from 40 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 4.7 million acres of soybeans grown in Indiana this year, 94 percent are biotech, up from 92 percent last year.
Worldwide, the picture is much the same. Global acreage of biotech crops more than doubled from 2000 to 2006, from 109 million acres to 252 million acres, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group.
And it's producing huge bumper crops. In the United States, corn yield per acre has doubled since the 1970s.
Even so, the market seems to have plenty of room to grow. Last month, Monsanto predicted it could triple the amount of farming acres planted worldwide with its genetically engineered seeds.
Michael Shuter, a corn and soybean farmer in Madison County, uses biotech seeds and has seen the difference. He has grown biotech corn for three years, now filling about 2,000 acres, as well as biotech soybeans for 10 years, now covering about 1,200 acres. He sells most of the crop for hog and poultry feed.
"We get better control over pests and weeds. Our crops look very good," Shuter said. He added that his crop yield has improved by up to 20 percent.
Americans buy plenty of biotech-derived foods. Seventy percent to 80 percent of all the processed food found in supermarkets, from canned peas to frozen dinners, comes from biotech crops, food experts say.
Of course, many consumers might be buying biotech foods and not even realizing it. A poll taken in 2000 found that 62 percent of Americans were unaware that genetically modified foods were being sold, according to the University of Michigan.
"It's buried in almost every food product that has a long list of ingredients, many of the prepared and frozen foods," said Bruce Chassy, professor of food safety at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "But what we're eating are genetically modified ingredients. It's rare to see 100 percent genetically modified food on the market."
That's not to say the biotech companies haven't tried. In 1994, the first biotech crop to be approved by U.S. regulators was a high-tech tomato, called the Flavr Savr, made by Calgene, following more than a decade of research. Calgene scientists altered a gene on the tomato that caused softening so that farmers could let the tomato stay on the vine a few additional days, allowing for longer shelf life. But the tomato met with mixed reviews and flopped in the market.
Other companies have spent millions of dollars to develop virus-resistant sweet potatoes, tastier papayas and the like, but the market remains small.
Some scientists say biotech crops encourage farmers to overuse pesticides, which eventually lose their effectiveness. They say the overuse creates super-resistant weeds that hurt the environment.
"There's an epidemic of weeds that are resistant to Monsanto's Roundup," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington. "In some cases, farmers are applying 10 times the normal rate of Roundup, and it's still not killing weeds it used to kill."
But Dow, Monsanto and other companies see it differently. When Dow Agro rolled out its agreement last month, its president and chief executive, Jerome A. Peribere, described the combined seeds as the "Rolls-Royce or the Ferrari of the industry."
"It's going to be the ultimate technology," he predicted.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD
QUESTION: What is it?
ANSWER: Food in which the genetic material (or DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology," "gene technology" or "genetic engineering."
Q: How does it work?
A: Plant scientists transfer individual genes from one organism to another, also between nonrelated species. Such methods are used to create genetically modified plants, which then are used to grow genetically modified food crops.
Q: Why is it done?
A: The initial objective was to protect crops by helping them resist diseases caused by insects or viruses, or giving them more tolerance to herbicides. It's also done to develop foods at a lower price, or with greater durability or nutritional value.
Q: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?
A: It is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all such foods. Genetically modified foods currently on the international market are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.
Q: Are genetically modified foods good to the environment?
A: Different scientists have different opinions. Some say the crops can be grown and harvested safely. Others are concerned about the potential of genetically modified crops to escape and introduce the engineered genes into wild populations.
Source: World Health Organization
ABOUT DOW AGROSCIENCES:
--Based: 9330 Zionsville Road.
--Employees: About 5,500, including about 1,000 in Indianapolis.
--What it makes: A wide line of agricultural chemicals, along with biotech seeds and traits.
--Sales: $3.4 billion (2006).
--President and CEO: Jerome A. Peribere.
--Parent: Dow Chemical Co.
--Background: Dow Chemical and Eli Lilly and Co. formed the business in 1989, calling it DowElanco. In 1997, Dow acquired Lilly's stake in the joint venture, renaming it Dow AgroSciences.
Source: Dow AgroSciences, Star research
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