22 March 2002

Du Pont ditches hybrid wheat breeding work

By Charles Abel

AG-CHEM company Du Pont has pulled the plug on its hybrid wheat programme.

It blames limited market uptake, due to low crop prices, and the receding opportunity for using them to deliver GM traits.

"The short-term returns were simply not in line with the investment being made," says Du Pont wheat business specialist, Robert Bird.

The company is now seeking a buyer for its wheat business or a joint venture partner. "There are parties that are very interested, so there is a strong possibility that varieties will be available this autumn," says Mr Bird. A decision is expected within three weeks.

Du Pont hybrids Hyno-Esta, Hyno-Rista and Hyno-Renta had secured a reputation for boosting yield on marginal sites and from late drillings. "In challenging conditions they could out-yield alternatives by as much as 20%," says Mr Bird.

But uptake was slow, only accounting for 4000ha in the UK and Eire this year. Main reason was the difficulty of covering the higher cost of seed produced using a chemical hybridising agent when wheat prices are so low.

"Five years ago wheat was worth £100/t and the emphasis was on output," says Mr Bird. "With wheat now below £60/t the scenario is very different. Growers are looking to reduce production costs."

He also blames the EUs aversion to GM technology. Du Pont had hoped to use hybrids as the vehicle to deliver GM traits for better grain quality and disease resistance in wheat. That is because they make the process easier and help protect seed prices, because farm-saving is not an option.

"It now looks very doubtful that GM is going to be accepted in the EU in the next five, 10 or even 15 years," says Mr Bird. Du Ponts GM efforts have consequently shifted to maize and soya instead.

If a buyer or partner can be found for the wheat business several interesting varieties are in trials, says Mr Bird, including hybrids that could replace high-gluten wheat imports. "The millers are very interested."

Allied Grain, which marketed Du Pont hybrids, is disappointed, but not surprised by the decision. "The cost structure in arable farming has not helped," admits seeds director Paul Brown.

The chance to boost crop yield and improve grain quality was particularly attractive, he says. "Our experience with hybrid rye for Ryvita has shown the potential for tremendous benefits for straw strength, yield and grain characters using hybrids."

But he doubts that hybrid wheat seed will be available for the coming autumn. "Monsanto put their hybrid wheat programme on ice and I expect Du Pont will do the same."

ProCam, which also sold Du Pont hybrids, says they offered a genuine advance for farmers, with scope for interesting market outlets.

"It would be very positive if a partner or buyer could be found. But the industry has to be realistic about what can be afforded," notes director John Poulton.

"The decision is surprising, but I can understand the reasoning," adds NIABs Richard Fenwick. &#42

HYBRID WHEAT

&#8226 Du Pont programme dropped.

&#8226 0.7t/ha ave boost in trials, added-value grain and vigorous growth, but higher seed costs.

&#8226 Poor market penetration and gloomy GM prospects mean no-go.

HYBRID WHEAT

&#8226 Du Pont programme dropped.

&#8226 0.7t/ha ave boost in trials, added-value grain and vigorous growth, but higher seed costs.

&#8226 Poor market penetration and gloomy GM prospects mean end to funding.