Ag giants look to plant a seed to fight the drought

Assistant farm manager Matt Wiggeim inspects a Syngenta AG Golden Harvest brand hybrid seed corn seedling in a field in Princeton, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As California farmers grapple with the fourth year of the drought, seed tech giants Monsanto and DuPont's Pioneer are focusing mostly on big cash crops such as corn and soybeans but also have research underway in the Golden State that could one day help fresh vegetable and fruit producers cope with even drier conditions.

Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer have field corn being tested under drought stress conditions in Woodland, California—a community considered the Silicon Valley of seeds. Swiss-based rival Syngenta, which is facing a roughly $45 billion takeover offer from St. Louis-based Monsanto, also has significant R&D operations nearby.

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"The lesson that's being learned from crops like corn can still be applied no doubt in other crops in the future," said Neal Gutterson, vice president of agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer. He added that there also are applications for "gene editing in terms of drought tolerance. We think that will be pretty important in the future as well."

Monsanto's Woodland facility serves as the company's vegetable R&D headquarters, and there are more than 22 crops in its portfolio, ranging from sweet corn and cucumbers to peppers, tomatoes and melons. Within a few hundred miles of Woodland, approximately a third of all vegetables and two-thirds of all fruits and nuts consumed in the U.S. are grown.

Syngenta also has a sizable global vegetable seed business, which it markets along with a range of fungicides and insecticides. A few years ago the company expanded its efforts at Woodland, giving Syngenta an expanded R&D presence in California's cereals, melons, squash and tomatoes markets.

Monsanto, in a bid to overcome potential regulatory hurdles in acquiring Syngenta, has offered to sell all of Syngenta's seed businesses and any overlapping chemical operations. Together, the companies represent about 40 percent of the U.S. corn seed market.

Syngenta's drought-tolerant corn known as Agrisure Artesian was launched in the U.S. in 2010. By 2013, two other drought-resistant corn seeds became available: Pioneer's Optimum AquaMax and Monsanto's Genuity DroughtGard. Pioneer and Syngenta's products were developed through breeding and not biotechnology, while Monsanto's DroughtGard uses a technology that was developed as a biotech trait with breeding.

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Monsanto started initial groundbreaker trials on the DroughtGard corn hybrids technology in 2012, when severe heat and drought stress impacted Corn Belt states.

"(We had) great timing to get those hybrids out when we actually saw severe to exceptional drought in the Western Great Plains," said Connie Davis, corn systems technology development manager for Monsanto. "We focused on the field corn just because that was the biggest need we thought in the Western Great Plains versus California with so many other crops that it has available for production."

Meanwhile, Monsanto's proposed purchase of Syngenta is expected to be the focus of the company's fiscal third-quarter earnings conference call on Wednesday morning. Syngenta has rebuffed Monsanto's takeover attempts since April, and some analysts believe the latest bid could go higher.

"I would say Monsanto is determined to consummate the deal with Syngenta and has been going out of their way to express the conviction of the strategic rationale behind a combination of the two companies," said Christopher Kapsch, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets.

In a note Tuesday, Citi Research valued a potential seed divestiture of Syngenta at about $7.5 billion. "Syngenta's seed portfolio has some strong products, although execution missteps have resulted in lost market share in the U.S. over the past few years," Citi said.