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DuPont Chief: Biotech Can Help Small Farmers

9:21 PM, Oct. 15, 2011  Written by: PHILIP BRASHER | Gannett

WASHINGTON — DuPont’s top executive says it will take “world-class science” to produce the food the world will need in coming years, rebuffing critics who say the genetically engineered seeds her company produces will be of little help to poor, small-scale farmers in Africa and other needy regions.

But Ellen Kullman, DuPont’s chairwoman and CEO, acknowledged Thursday that high-tech farming tools won’t be enough to help farmers grow more food, and that solutions to poor production need to be tailored to local needs.

“At DuPont, we are under no illusion that laboratory science can drive food security on its own,” Kullman said in a luncheon address to the World Food Prize annual conference.

But she said that increasing food production will “require a continual stream of science-based innovations” that are “precisely tailored to the solutions that are local.”

Her remarks came a day after philanthropist Howard G. Buffett warned that soil fertility was the biggest issue facing farmers in Africa, and that pushing biotech seeds and other U.S.-style methods on growers there could actually worsen their problems. Other critics have argued that U.S. agricultural methods have led to environmental problems and given large-scale farms an edge over smaller-scale farmers who can’t afford expensive seed and other inputs.

DuPont is parent to Johnston, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of the world’s largest producers of biotech seeds. Pioneer’s genetically engineered corn varieties are widely used in South Africa but are not yet permitted on much of the continent, although several countries are moving toward permitting the use of biotech food crops. Pioneer has collaborated with Buffett in developing a more nutritious variety of sorghum, a food grain in Africa.

Pioneer’s broadly spread work force will play a role in assuring that the seeds the company sells will be appropriate to the places they are sold.
Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont is best known to the public as a chemical manufacturer, but it has been steadily expanding into food and agriculture. It now accounts for nearly 30 percent of its revenue with the recent acquisition of Danisco, a manufacturer of food ingredients.

Kullman said DuPont is moving forward with its plans to develop next-generation biofuels made from crop residue rather than corn. She indicated the technology was still years from being fully commercialized. The project started as a joint project of DuPont and Danisco.

“We’re making great progress. The industry as a whole is making great progress. We’ve seen tremendous improvement in our pilot” plant in Tennessee, she said.