PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico New strains of genetically modified corn will play a key role in meeting soaring demand as U.S thirst for ethanol fuel cuts into supplies, a top seed company scientist said on Friday.
Dupont's Bill Niebur, the firm's vice president for genetics research and development, said demand for ethanol means the race is on to rapidly ramp up grain yields.
"We doubled average yields in North America in 41 years. We don't have that much time to make the next step," Niebur said at a gathering of grain exchanges, traders and consumers in Mexico. "The challenge for our plant breeders is to move that curve significantly faster."
The rapidly increasing number of corn-hungry U.S. ethanol plants has raised concerns there will not be enough grain to go around.
Industry insiders expect farmers to plant significant new corn acreage in the United States this year, but many warn that new land is limited, making yield increases more urgent.
Niebur said Dupont's seed division Pioneer was now spending between 9 percent and 11 percent of revenues on research and would hire 25 percent more scientists this year, many from India.
He said the time frame for getting new seeds to market had halved, with 87 percent of the hybrid corn seeds the firm now sells developed in the last four years. Development cycles need to compress more, he said.
Niebur said new research was focused on boosting yields by making plants more weather, bug and weed resistant, as well as creating corn types more suitable to ethanol production.
Average U.S. corn yields in the United States are close to 150 bushels per acre, with yields breaking through the 150 bushel mark only once, in 2004.
"What we are told is we can break the 400-bushel-yield level in corn, we can break the 100-bushel-level in beans," he said, adding that some corn growers had already gotten close to that mark.
He admitted those yields would not become widespread in the near future and predicted a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in productivity per year.
Peter Nessler, vice president of the renewable fuels group at FCStone, said yields increased in spurts, high productivity one year usually being followed by several flat years.
"We made a high in 1986, we never broke it until 1992," he said. "We made a high in 1994, it took all the way until 2003 to beat."
In 2006, 61 percent of corn planted in the United States was genetically modified, compared to 52 percent in 2005 and 46 percent in 2004, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Niebur said he expected that uptake to continue until reaching as much as 95 percent of corn planted. He said farmers planting to meet ethanol demand were more willing to use GMO.
"They don't care if it's GMO or not. They're looking for more corn," he said.