2-Plants: NOVARTIS CHALLENGES MONSANTO WITH NEW CORN SEED
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NOVARTIS CHALLENGES MONSANTO WITH NEW CORN SEED
06:53 p.m Feb 19, 1999 Eastern
By Julie Vorman
ALBUQUERQUE, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Novartis Inc. unveiled a new
genetically-modified corn seed on Friday to challenge Monsanto Co. in the
race to develop designer seeds that can help U.S. farmers control weeds
The new gene, known as Acuron, will not be available in seeds sold to
farmers until 2003. But one Wall Street analysts said the eagerness of
Novartis to announce the product means the usually-conservative company is
confident it has a winner.
All major U.S. and foreign seed companies are spending millions on
to modify plant genes to produce bigger crop yields, stronger plants or
value-added traits such as higher protein or oil content.
Acuron is similar to Monsanto's popular Roundup-Ready products in that it
will protect a corn plant from farmers' use of herbicides to kill a wide
range of weeds. Roundup-Ready contains a gene that resists the herbicide
glyphosate, and is used in cotton soybeans, corn and other crops.
``This is a major announcement and should create a level playing field
Monsanto in the mind of the marketplace,'' said Sano Shimoda, head of
BioScience Securities Inc., a California firm that specialises in
agricultural biotechnology stocks. ``It also means that Novartis is trying
to raise its profile about the future value of its products.''
Novartis executives presented the new product at the Commodity Classic
conference that attracted more than 1,000 soybean and corn farmers.
``This is an example of us springing forward with a new technology that
will truly make a difference to farmers,'' said Ed Shonsey, president of
Shonsey likened the expected impact of Acuron to Bt corn, made by Novartis
and other companies. ``In many cases during the past year of low prices,
this product meant the difference between farmers staying in business and
going out of business,'' Shonsey said.
Forecasters have estimated that 25 million U.S. acres will be planted with
Bt corn this year, up sharply from 6 million acres last year. Bt corn is
engineered to protect corn from the European corn borer with a natural
insecticide produced by the young plant.
Company executives declined to project how much in sales Acuron could mean
to Novartis, saying only that sales would be ``substantial'' and could
rapidly rival that of Bt corn.
Acuron, which builds in resistance to a class of herbicides known as
protoporphyrinogen oxidase inhibitors, can also be inserted into other
crops with similar results.
Work is already underway for sugar beet and soybean varieties, said Bruce
Yergler, a Monsanto vice president.
Shimoda said Acuron had the potential to challenge Monsanto's
``If the weed kill is faster, this could be an important factor for
customers. Farmers like to see weeds die quickly, and Roundup-Ready takes
several days,'' he said.
Novartis said it would have Acuron in field tests by 2001, under the
supervision of the U.S. Agriculture Department, and indicated it would
share the technology with other companies.
``We have to be able to compete, not just through exclusivity because
technology always finds a way around that,'' Shonsey said.
The announcement came amid debate in Colombia over a biosafety protocol
which could affect trade in genetically-modified foods and plants. U.S.
transgenic products have faced stiff opposition in the European Union,
where consumer and environmental groups fear the new products could be
Novartis executives acknowledged that U.S. exports of its new corn could
present trade problems unless transgenic products are addressed in next
year's round of world ag trade talks.
``There is a high emotional component in this debate in Europe,'' said
Heiri Gugger, president of Novartis Crop Protection. ``We have had a very
rapid change... All of the sudden the implementation of this gene
technology is happening much faster than anyone expected five years
Experts expressed confidence that genetically-modified crops are here to
``You're just not going to be able to stop this thing,'' Shimoda said.
``The value of these products is so great, and improves farmers'
efficiencies. Other countries cannot afford to ignore this technology for
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