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Drought Puts Modified Corn Seed to the Test

• Jessica Leber via

Illinois farmer Mike Cyrulik didn't foresee this year's drought when, this spring, he planted 20 bags of a new corn seed on a slice of his 5,000-acre farm. Today, weeks before the harvest, much of his and his neighbors' crop is dead or dying. But not the portion of his land where he planted the new seed. The healthy looking plants have "wound up being the talk of the town," says Cyrulik, who expects a significantly higher yield, by 30 to 50 bushels, from each of those 220 acres in Bloomington.

The reason is drought-resistant corn, produced by one of the world's largest seed companies, Syngenta, which began limited sales just before the 2011 growing season. In fact, three major seed producers—Syngenta, along with DuPont and Monsanto—are hoping for successes similar to Cyrulik's in the midst of the worst drought to strike the U.S. in half a century. 

The devastating dry spell comes as Syngenta and DuPont's Pioneer company are ramping up marketing of a new generation of corn seeds bred so that farmers can improve their harvest from water-stressed crops. In Monsanto's case, the company has been conducting premarket field tests of the first of any commercial crop to contain a genetically engineered drought-tolerant trait.

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