Not too long ago, researchers looked to a plant's physical appearance and hereditary information for answers to genetic questions. Today, plant breeders use genomics -- the study of all pieces of genetic material in a chromosome -- to find out how particular genes function. It's one of the hottest tools in the search for new and improved crops. The recent mapping of the rice genome, the first time a crop plant has been sequenced, shows how sophisticated techniques have become.
Now researchers at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Du Pont subsidiary that's the world's largest seed company and a leader in advanced plant genetics, are working to isolate genes in corn and other commodity crops such as soybeans and wheat. The goal: to develop a strain that can better control water intake.
Such information could allow scientists to develop crop seeds with better drought-resistant traits. Richard L. McConnell, president of Pioneer for the past 19 months, has been involved in much of Pioneer's plant research. He joined the company in 1974 as a corn breeder and moved up through the ranks of research and development.
McConnell, who was raised on a farm in northeast Colorado and obtained his PhD in plant genetics from the University of Nebraska, has seen big changes in agriculture in the last five years. During a visit to Pioneer's research facility outside Des Moines, Iowa, BusinessWeek Correspondent Julie Forster spoke with McConnell about plant genetics, how grains are grown, and how they are sold. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Farmers are using technology such as global positioning systems, yield monitors, and plant varieties that have built-in insecticides to increase yield per acre. Why is there a constant need to increase production?
A: Farmers are trying to be as efficient as possible because commodity prices have stayed relatively flat for 50 years. During that period we've had tremendous increases in productivity, but in terms of food prices, all the benefit has been to the consumer. Food inflation would be tremendous if we hadn't increased yield over that time.
We realize here that if we don't continue to increase yields per acre on the cultivated land, population increases will force us to put land into production that is pretty marginal, that has erosion issues, or is under drought stress. We're better off continuing to improve production on the existing cultivated land.
Q: How productive is the average farmer today when you look at per-acre yield compared with 20 years ago?
A: Over 50 years, we've seen an increase of about 1?% year over year for that long period of time. The average yield in the U.S. right now is about 135-140 bushels per acre on corn. We know we've got corn products out there with much more genetic potential than that if we get the right weather and management practices in place. One farmer in eastern Iowa hit 408 bushels per acre last year.
From a genetics point of view, we've done a tremendous job of developing the potential -- but the limiting factors in agriculture are weather extremes and pest situations that might arise.
Q: Are the weather extremes we've had in the past few years making your job more difficult in advising farmers on what to plant?
A: It creates challenges. That's where the next generation of technology is really beginning to help us. We think that the trait for drought resistance is controlled by more than one gene. We're also looking at heat- and cold-tolerance.
Q: Will we have crops that will one day grow without water?
A: We'll never really have crops that can grow without water. It's just the degree...to which they can grow without [as much] water. If [a crop] can get by with three or four fewer irrigation applications during growing season, that's a huge benefit for growers because they can reduce costs and still get reasonable yield.
Even here in Iowa, we'll go through periods when we won't get rainfall for three weeks or longer, and the crop will go under stress. If the crop can mine the existing moisture in the soil more efficiently or survive those periods and still produce high yields, that's what we're looking for.
Q: You're also working on crops that are cold-tolerant?
A: Corn has moved a long way north. When I first started working with Pioneer, mid-Minnesota was almost the limit of where corn could be grown, and now we're up into Canada, around Winnipeg. If you go from Canada to Texas or Georgia, we're dealing with around 12 different maturity zones. In Texas or Georgia, you have a much longer growing season, so you want a plant that will take advantage of that full growing season.
Q: How helpful will the rice genome sequence be to Pioneer's work in developing new traits for such products as corn and soybeans?
A: If we know a DNA sequence in the rice plant is responsible for a specific characteristic, there's a good chance that a similar sequence in a corn plant could be responsible for that same characteristic. The more we understand these crops on the molecular level, the greater the opportunity to give our customers the full benefit of genetic potential that exists within them.
Q: Where do you see agriculture heading right now?
A: There's no question in my mind as a researcher that we can create [value-added] products. The challenge is linking that grain with the appropriate end user, whether it's a livestock feeder, industrial processor, or food manufacturer.
Q: So are you beginning to offer more products?
A: We're just beginning to see that evolve, but we have most of Frito-Lay's business. Probably 85% of all corn chips in this country are made from Pioneer corn hybrids. That's because we work with Frito-Lay and try to understand what their dry milling process is and what corn hybrids would make the best products. And we've come back and worked on the yield and agronomic performance and the grain type that would work best for Frito-Lay's corn chips.