Crop Genetics plans test of pesticide

November 07, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

The genetically engineered crop that focused national attention on Maryland's Crop Genetics International Inc. six years ago is getting closer to reality.

The Hanover-based biotechnology company announced yesterday that field tests of a biological pesticide were promising enough to begin large-scale tests using thousands of acres next year.

If all goes well, the company could be asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the end of next year for permission to begin selling the product in 1995.

Five years ago, Crop Genetics was criticized by environmentalists when it sought permission to plant corn seeds engineered to produce plants that would be naturally resistant to the European corn borer, a caterpillar that causes an estimated $500 million worth of damage a year. The critics said the release of life forms that had been altered in a laboratory might be dangerous.

The company eventually gained approval to test the pesticide, but it ran into several hurdles in product development.

Those problems appear to be under control, company officials said.

"It has been a long hard road," said Peter Carlson, the company's chief scientist. But he said the tests this summer showed that InCide was more effective limiting corn borer damage on two corn varieties than traditional chemical pesticides.

Just as important, corn yields from the plants that were inoculated with the company's biological pesticides were only between 2 percent and 8 percent below average.

In large tests, the company will still have to prove that its product is worthwhile for farmers to use -- that the reduction in yields from the pesticide is less than reduction in yields that result from the caterpillar damage.

Without some success in last season's tests, several analysts said, the company might well have had to abandon the development program.

"I think they would have faced a tough choice," said Hugh Holman, a senior analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons environmental services group in Baltimore. "They would have had to take a long, hard look in the mirror to decide whether running after it was worthwhile."

In addition, he said, the company has begun focusing on the development of other products with larger markets, including insecticidal virus products it is developing with DuPont Co. Crop Genetics will begin manufacturing the products next year.

The eight years that the company has spent in developing the technology can be transferred to other crops, Dr. Carlson said. The company has begun work on a similar means of controlling the Blast disease of rice, a type of fungus. "Most of the safety issues and the issues of science have been solved, and we won't have to go through that again," Dr. Carlson said.

The potential market for the corn borer pesticide is $30 million to $40 million a year, and the company hopes to capture up to half that amount, company executives said.

Despite the company's success, said George S. Dahlman, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Hopwood in Minneapolis, there remain several concerns, including competition from other companies that are working on products against the corn borer.

While no company is using the same approach as Crop Genetics, he said, "They are clearly in a race with some powerful competitors," including Monsanto Co. of St. Louis and Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Des Moines.

And environmentalists are likely to continue raising questions about the safety of using the product over thousands of acres.

"I would anticipate that if they try to commercialize the product that a number of people will want to take a hard, long look," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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