We've tinkered with corn for more than 5,000 years. Now, with the mysteries of the corn genome becoming known, can scientists push yields to a quantum leap in a couple of decades?
Some researchers expect corn yields to climb at an unprecedented rate. Monsanto Company scientists predict a doubling of the average national corn yield by 2030. Their counterparts at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. say corn yield should increase 40% during the next decade. Not everyone in the lab agrees, however. Some believe the corn yield trendline will continue on its steady climb but not accelerate much.
Either way, driven by an increasing demand for food, fuel and industrial uses, it's clear the world needs more corn. Plant breeding is mankind's ultimate blend of art and science.
It's no coincidence that the brain center of the cutting-edge corn breeding work is located in central Iowa on some of the world's best corn-producing soil. Here, between Des Moines and Ames, the top corn breeders for Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta do mind-boggling work in their plots, greenhouses and labs.
"There's phenomenal technology, and the experts tell us they've just scratched the surface. I believe yields are going to grow at an ever-increasing rate," says Craig Floss, Iowa Corn Growers Association CEO, who works in Johnston, Iowa.
Visit Ted Crosbie at Monsanto's modest-looking Ankeny complex, Dave Bubeck at Pioneer's college-like campus in Johnston or Ben Hable at Syngenta's corn headquarters at the former Garst Seed Company center near Slater, and you find corn breeders doing key research that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Crosbie, Monsanto's vice president of global plant breeding, thinks pushing the national average corn yield to 300 bu. per acre by 2030 is doable. "Three-hundred-bushel corn is not hard. What's hard is to do it on 90 million acres. It's definitely possible," he says.
"It's a lot about the bottom side. We need to raise yield on the bottom half of the acres in the U.S. The hardest half to move is the top because there are biological limits. Four-hundred-bushel to 500-bu. is the theoretical maximum. We can produce 350-bu. to 400-bu.-per-acre corn now under very specific circumstances," Crosbie says.
The best way to pull the bottom end up is with drought-tolerant and nitrogen (N)-efficient corn, he explains. If drier corn producing areas such as eastern Nebraska, the Dakotas and the Texas Panhandle could leapfrog yields thanks to new technology, it makes the national 300-bu.-per-acre yield goal easier to fathom.
"What you need to do is get them to 200 bu. If you can bring them up 100 bu. from where they are solves half of our problem," Crosbie says.
The first technology to address that is in the pipeline, he adds. Going hand-in-hand with the new technology will be planting at higher populations.
"If we maintain the same grain per plant and double plant population to 60,000 plants per acre, we can produce 450-bu. corn, and it'll take less N per bushel," Crosbie predicts. "We will double yields with one-third less inputs per unit produced.
- January 2009