Brazil sugar mills start genetically-modified cane plantation

PIRACICABA, Brazil, March 2 (Reuters) - Brazilian sugar mills looking to grow the world’s first variety of genetically modified (GM) sugarcane have planted an initial area of 400 hectares (988 acres), according to the research firm behind the project.

Developed by Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC) with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes that make it resistant to the cane borer, around 100 mills are working with the GM cane, company Chief Executive Gustavo Leite told Reuters.

The cane borer is a widespread insect that costs Brazilian mills around 5 billion reais ($1.5 billion) per year in losses and insecticide expense.

Development of new sugarcane varieties is seen by experts as key to improving agricultural yields, reducing production costs, and increasing profit margins in an industry struggling with low global sugar prices.

But many environmentalists oppose the spread of GM plant varieties that kill insects, saying they could cause imbalances in the areas where they are mass cultivated.

Last year, Brazil approved the commercial use of CTC’s GM sugarcane, the first time such permission had been granted anywhere in the world.

Leite, a former Monsanto executive, said the company’s objective was to rapidly increase planting of the new variety in the next three years, targeting around 1.5 million hectares.

He also said that CTC has new GM products in the pipeline.

“We are going to create a portfolio of varieties with this characteristic of resistance to the borer. Our idea is to seek approval of one or two new varieties this year,” he said.

Founded in 1969 and maintained by private and public institutions, CTC is the world’s largest sugarcane research center. Among its main shareholders are BNDESPar, the investment arm of Brazil’s development bank, Copersucar, the world’s largest sugar merchant, and Raízen, a joint venture between Cosan SA Indústria e Comércio and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

CTC has previously said it was considering an IPO as a way to raise cash for its research, and Leite said that could happen around 2021.

Among other varieties being developed by the company are a GM cane resistant to another insect affecting plantations, known locally as ‘bicudo’ (bollard), and one that would be resistant to the weed killer glyphosate. ($1 = 3.2586 reais) (Reporting by Jose Roberto Gomes, Writing by Marcelo Teixeira, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)