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Monsanto to build conventional, GMO corn germplasm greenhouse in Arizona

corn with mountains
Monsanto Corporation plans to build a seven-acre, under-glass greenhouse corn research facility in Southern Arizona which will house GMO corn breeding and ‘trait integration’ that combines genetic and biotech traits.  Monsanto has purchased 155 acres of farmland near Marana where the 30-foot-tall greenhouse will be housed along with ancillary facilities and traditional ground production. 

While Iowa and the other dozen or so traditional corn-growing states don’t have anything to fear from Arizona, you can now add the Grand Canyon Ssate as a player in corn line research and production efforts.

While figures vary month to month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates released in September still forecast a record 16.8 billion bushels for 2016-2017 or roughly 175.5 bushels per acre.

According to National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling, the report provides “evidence of challenges that farmers face” and the need to “step up and work together to solve those challenges.”

Multinational biotech giant Monsanto Corporation plans to do so by adding acreage in Southern Arizona dedicated to growing corn in a seven-acre, under-glass project via some GMO corn-breeding along with ‘trait integration’ that combines genetic and biotech traits. 

On a recent whistle stop tour for investors, Monsanto Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant discussed about how “the industry’s leading technology platforms and digital integration were addressing evolving grower needs to accelerate the future of agriculture.” 

He also called corn a growth driver as Monsanto upgraded its germplasm in next-generation trait platforms including Smartstax PRO and Trecepta corn. Included in his remarks was a brief mention of investment plans for greenhouses (plural) in Arizona to support protected culture capabilities.

In a deal currently still in the making, Monsanto has purchased 155 acres of farmland, part of the long-established Kai Family Farm in Marana, where the 30-foot-tall greenhouse will be housed along with ancillary facilities and traditional ground production. 

The listed purchase price for the acreage is about $3.8 million. 

“The greenhouse nursery grow out will provide seeds for select farmers to field test,” according to Herb Kai.

He says that while “things are still up in the air at this point,” his farm should be a part of the testing “along with other Marana growers. As a long-established agriculture family with many thousands of acres in production, anything we can do to help promote agriculture is a positive, and this facility will be a good fit with the town of Marana.”

Marana is located about 20 miles northwest of Tucson.

Monsanto already has a cotton breeding site in Casa Grande and a cottonseed production facility in Eloy. 

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“We’re involved in various field trials and collaborations in Arizona, often working with schools like the University of Arizona as well as growers throughout the state,” says Ben Eberle, Monsanto communications manager for wheat, cotton, and specialty crops.

“We’re committed to providing farmers tools to help them have better harvests - and farmers themselves often play a big part in making these tools available via our new product evaluator program, like in the case of cotton where 200 farmers, including Upland cotton farmers in Arizona, are managing trial plots.”

One of the more quiet partnerships involves the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where Monsanto corn research and development has been going on for over a year now. 

“We grow the crops our clients want us to grow,” says CEAC Director Gene Giacomelli who acknowledges that CEAC has been sort of the ‘advance guard’ for the newly-announced facility. 

He says, “By utilizing 6,000 square feet in our existing greenhouse space, Monsanto had an efficient way to test out some of their research theories and obtain data at minimal effort.”

Ultimately, instead of building a research facility closer to Midwestern corn country, Monsanto chose to expand in Arizona because, “More days of sunlight mean we can harvest Arizona’s environmental conditions and maintain plants year-round with less energy,” according to a news release. 

Adds Monsanto Corporate Media Relations Coordinator Christi Dixon: “In the Midwest, where Monsanto is headquartered (Missouri), we can’t even keep the greenhouses warm year-round.

“This is an effort to move corn products through the development pipeline more quickly. At 15 percent the size of a typical field, the greenhouse will help reduce our environmental footprint via less water, fertilizer, and pesticides we might encounter in open field environments, while allowing us to produce corn year-round in protected culture conditions.”

By utilizing automated greenhouses where the watering is done by robots in temperature-controlled environments, the company hopes to better manage weather conditions and the risks of disease and insects.

Dixon calls the indoor growing “a support-protected culture capability (with the hopes of) increasing long-term rates of genetic gain in corn and soybeans.”

Similar work is already established in Puerto Rico. And in addition to existing plot plantings of GMO corn in Mexico, a Guadalajara center opened in 2014 to develop conventional hybrid strains of corn. A company statement said the Mexico site “aims to create new varieties tolerant to diseases and stresses that affect maize cultivation all over the world due to negative conditions caused by global climate change.” 

“The tools we’re using today will dramatically change the way we breed crops,” notes Dixon, quoting Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer. 

“Society has been breeding crops for 8,000 years and what we’ve done in the last four or five, sequencing every gene in a corn plant, when you can use the capabilities we have for seed production, that’s incredible.”

“It dramatically increases the number of crossbred seed types. Given many factors, like the ability to grow seed year-round, the company will make a million crosses this year and select the best one hundred of them for future production.”

Dixon adds: “Our investment plans in Arizona are part of our company’s growth drivers in corn (where) we see steady growth, enabled by upgrading the germplasm, the basic genetic material for any plant. This is an advanced germplasm development facility supporting the production of new corn inbreds, conventional and GMO, which will eventually be produced for use by farmers.”

Said Ajay Jones, Protected Culture Optimization project leader, “Monsanto’s initial work with the U of A’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center was designed around proof-of-concept research for our 7-acre greenhouse - things like fertilizer, growing media, lighting, and temperature requirements have been assessed with help from university staff and students.”

Jones adds, “Growing plants indoors allows breeding to be carried out quickly and efficiently with fewer resources. These processes can potentially help farmers by getting better quality crop varieties in their hands more quickly.”

Greenhouse construction is anticipated to start in a matter of weeks. A projected completion date has not been announced.

When fully operational, about 100 new jobs will be created - some 40-plus wage laborers and 50-plus researchers and scientists.

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