FORGET PHARMING

WHY CORN WON'T BE THE CROP OF CHOICE FOR PLANT-RAISED MEDICINES

YOU MIGHT have read reports that plant-raised pharmaceuticals will be a market worth $2.2 billion by 2011. But when farm publications publish these reports, they usually don't mention that the profits aren't likely to go to Iowa corn farmers.

Joseph Burris, an emeritus professor of seed science at Iowa State who now owns his own gene containment consulting company, explains why: “We used to think a buffer zone of one mile between pharma corn and conventional corn was adequate to prevent airborne pollen contamination so as to reassure the public and USDA that drug-producing genes aren't going to end up in corn flakes. But now the standard is 30 miles. You won't find anyplace in the Corn Belt that will accommodate those isolation standards.”

Burris also points to the high investment required. “Even if you find irrigated land in Arizona, standards for production are strict. Every kernel must be accounted for, and you need dedicated machinery. That planter or combine can't be used for anything else.”

Antony Blanc, head of Syngenta biopharma in Switzerland, also doubts corn is the future of pharmaceutical products. “We do believe that innovative plant-made pharmaceuticals [PMPs] will provide great benefits for patients who need new medicines,” Blanc says. “But corn farmers shouldn't count on producing these products in corn. Other crops are as well if not better suited for production of biopharmaceuticals. Syngenta has a program with safflower, for example. This low-acreage, niche oil- and birdseed crop grows well in remote, arid regions and is grown only on contract, making its credible isolation much simpler.”

Syngenta is in step with an industrywide move away from using major food crops for pharmaceutical production. Blanc says the main reason the first trials with PMPs used corn or tobacco was because these were the workhorses of early plant biotechnology. The industry began with what it knew best and has now moved on.

Corn growers shouldn't be too disappointed. Blanc says even a blockbuster drug would require, at most, between 500 and 3,000 acres to fulfill worldwide needs — not nearly enough to transform Iowa's economic landscape.

GOOD-BYE GOODYEAR?

COMPANY MAY EXIT FARM TIRE BUSINESS

EUROPE'S TYRES & Accessories trade magazine reported that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is discussing the possible sale of its agriculture tire division in North America to Titan International. The magazine added that Goodyear would retain its European ag tire business.

Tire industry figures indicate that Goodyear's farm tire production capacity in its Freeport, IL, plant is about 10,000 per day. Titan's Des Moines, IA, plant is estimated to produce 8,000 tires a day.

160-YEAR CYCLES

RESEARCH FINDS SEVERE WEATHER PATTERNS

THE NORTHERN Plains have experienced frequent and severe weather cycles over the last 2,000 years with some cycles lasting up to 160 years. These findings are from a three-year study conducted by the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota and the St. Croix Watershed Research Station at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The researchers conducted their study on the lake bottom sediments in Devil's Lake, ND.

The researchers learned that weather cycles have been more severe in the past centuries than the very limited current weather records indicate. Future cycles could be more severe.

The EERC researchers report that although this region is currently in a wet cycle, residents should be prepared for a significant drought within the next few decades. An extended drought will greatly threaten current living conditions.

TRACKING RUST'S PATH

Soybean growers who fear the infestation of rust should be able to follow the path of the fungus in the U.S. through Internet maps from Iowa State University (ISU). The university received a $900,000 grant to develop and operate a Web-based system that will detect, identify, map and predict the spread of rust and other plant diseases. The researchers will first focus on Asian soybean rust.

USDA provided the three-year grant to ISU. Forrest Nutter, ISU plant epidemiologist, will lead the project. The ISU researchers will use a nationwide database of plant disease samples to track the pests and then produce a real-time pest risk map. They then hope to predict where the pests may spread.

“In the case of Asian soybean rust, it will provide information to growers so they don't apply fungicides too early or too late,” Nutter says. He has used the technology to develop this map service in Brazil.

MONSANTO DIVERSIFIES

Monsanto announced plans to purchase a fruit and vegetable seed company called Seminis. Monsanto will pay $1.4 billion in cash and assumed debt, plus a performance-based payment of up to $125 million by the end of fiscal year 2007, for the company.

Monsanto CEO and President Hugh Grant stated that the purchase of Seminis fits Monsanto's plans because global interest in fruits and vegetables as well as healthy diets is growing. Seminis supplies more than 3,500 seed varieties to commercial fruit and vegetable growers and other businesses in more than 150 countries.