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Water scarcity challenge for agriculture, says Syngenta's Cox

If you're in the Midwest, drought is probably the furthest thing from your mind this week, as many areas are enduring a weeklong deluge.

However, drought-tolerant crops become more appealing when you flash back to last July, when 100-plus degree droughty days enveloped much of the Midwest.

"Globally, we are looking at climate change data," says Jeff Cox, global head, Syngenta corn and soybeans. "Without a doubt, the world is getting drier and hotter, particularly in the northern hemisphere where production commodity crops are grown today."

It doesn't stop there. "Drought affects all areas of the world, not just making high production crops," says Cox.

Water scarcity is further magnified in the tug of war that's going on for crops like corn between feed, food, and fuel. "Water is in much bigger demand than before," says Cox.

What to do
Cox is en route to Des Moines, Iowa, to address this week's World Food Prize ceremonies. Water scarcity is one of the points he'll touch on in his address.

"There's a need to improve crop performance in drought-prone areas as well as making crops more water efficient in general," he says.

That's where drought-tolerant traits come in. "We have tested these traits extensively, and achieved a yield increase not only under drought, but also better water utilization," he says. "We are targeting the first launch of these products in the 2011 to 2012 time frame."

Corn yields to double in 20 years
Increased production will be one way to ease the food-fuel-feed tug of war. "I think we are in a situation where the use of technology over the next twenty of years will double average yields," says Cox. "For corn, we'll be moving from an average around 150 bushels (per acre) to somewhere near 300."

Also on tap will be second-generation insect, herbicide, and yield traits. However, Cox adds the doubling of yields in 20 years will come through a combination of technology, and not just traits.

"It will also be through things like marker-assisted breeding, our understanding of (plant) genomes, and bringing new hybrids and varieties faster to market," he says. "The rate of gain is accelerating exponentially."

With the benefits of traits and improved genetics come additional seed costs that you'll pay. As to what level this shakes out hinges upon the value these traits and genetics bring to farmers, says Cox.

New technology will help improve efficiencies in corn-based ethanol manufacturing. Cox touted Syngenta's corn amylase trait on tap for 2008.

"This is essentially high technology corn, where an enzyme has been built into it to break down starches in the plant," says Cox. He adds having this enzyme already in the corn instead of adding it during the manufacturing process improves manufacturing efficiency and results in improved dried distillers grains.

"With these kinds of changes ahead, there will be less pressure on corn acres, more available corn for food, feed and fuel, and more productivity," says Cox. "It's a win-win for all parties."

Whether or not there will be grower premiums for such corn is still being determined. "We are working on it with channel partners and the ethanol industry in firming up the value proposition," says Tom Gahm, Syngenta Seeds spokesman.

Corn-derived ethanol is still a small part of overall U.S. fuel requirements. Cox sees it as a part of an overall set of solutions.

Cellulosic ethanol will also play a part. In the next 10 years, he sees the first phase of cellulosic ethanol being developed using materials like corn stover and forestry waste. From there, cellulosic ethanol may develop into new markets where specific crops are grown for the processing of ethanol.

Wheat and biotechnology
There are corn traits, there are soybean traits, so where are the wheat traits? When it comes to production, crops like wheat are struggling due to resistance by several parties to genetically modified crops and traits.

"We have been investing in wheat for several years, but the technology can only be employed when there is also consumer and regulatory acceptance," says Cox. "We"re not there by any means yet. We have been in consultation with those groups, but until that happens, I don't see any commercialization or large development (of biotechnology) in wheat."

Corn acres in 2008
U.S. corn acreage jumped from 78.327 million planted acres in 2006 to 93.616 million planted acres in 2007. A good bulk of this came at the expense of soybean acreage, which plunged from plantings of 75.522 million acres in 2006 to 63.669 million acres in 2007.

So what will corn do in 2008? "There is an interesting set of predictions," says Cox. "We are speaking with many experts, as well as the CBOT (Chicago Board of Trade) and our customers. The general opinion at the moment is there will be a 5 to 8 million-acre shift in favor of soybeans and wheat. Some will come from corn, which is predicted to be anything from 4 to 7 million acres."

The remainder will likely come from some Conservation Reserve Program acres coming back into production, and double-cropped soybeans.

If you're in the Midwest, drought is probably the furthest thing from your mind this week, as many areas are enduring a weeklong deluge.

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