American Farmers Could Soon Be Growing Derecho-Proof Corn Plants

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Farmers across the U.S. could soon be growing corn plants that are able to withstand winds as strong as those brought by the powerful derecho that hit Iowa last year.

Bayer AG is developing shorter-stature plants that can resist winds without falling over, said Bob Reiter, head of research and development at the German chemical giant’s crop science division. The first new variety, introduced in Mexico in September, is expected to be launched in the U.S. in about 2023.

Tall plants have long been a sign of big corn harvests, but Bayer says its short version won’t affect yield potential. While bigger corn stalks fell over in Iowa when the derecho hit last year -- making it impossible to harvest with a combine -- the company’s smaller varieties planted in a test field in the state remained standing.

American Farmers Could Soon Be Growing Derecho-Proof Corn Plants

“These were winds events that were well over 100 miles per hour,” Reiter said at a virtual press conference on Friday. “We think this is going to be a true game changer in corn production down the road.”

The derecho that hit in August was a turning point for the global corn market. Americans were expecting a record crop, then the impact of the winds in the biggest growing state forced the government to keep cutting its yield forecast month after month. With China scooping up a smaller-than-expected harvest, prices rallied to a seven-year high.

Bayer is developing the shorter-stature corn in three ways: using breeding techniques, GMO technology and gene-editing. While the GMO version is expected to be the most impactful, not all markets allow genetically-modified crops. Meanwhile, the status for gene-editing is still unclear in places like Europe.

Shorter plants also allow for better crop management as they allow equipment to be moved across fields more readily, Reiter said. They are also better at producing roots, which can mean they are more drought resistant and present advantages in terms of nutrition, he said.

The GMO-version is targeted for deregulation in the U.S. later in the decade, probably around 2027, he said. In Europe and South America, the breeding version is expected to become commercial somewhere between 2023 and 2027, he added.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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