Market News & Headlines >> The Rise of Drought Tolerant Corn

Drought tolerant (DT) corn was planted on more than a fifth of U.S. corn acres in 2016, according to a study released by USDA’s Economic Research Service in late January, which notes the adoption of DT varieties roughly parallels the adoption of herbicide-tolerant corn varieties in the early 2000’s. 

The ERS study found that 22% of U.S. corn acreage was planted with DT corn in 2016 compared with just 2% in 2012, while DT corn made up roughly 40% of corn acreage in some drought-prone states. 

In 2016, 42% of Nebraska corn acres and 39% of Kansas corn acres were planted with DT seed. These and other states with a 25% or higher adoption rate, such as South Dakota and Texas, experienced at least one severe-or-worse drought between 2011 and 2015, the authors of the study note. 

On the other hand, northern corn-producing states, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, experienced less-severe droughts during this time period and adoption rates in these states were lower, with DT corn making up between 14% and 20% of total corn plantings in 2016. 

Drought-tolerant (DT) corn produced using conventional breeding methods was commercially introduced in 2011. Hybrids genetically engineered (GE) for drought tolerance were introduced in 2012, but were not broadly available until 2013. 

GE drought tolerance protects corn plants from drought somewhat differently than conventionally bred drought tolerance and generally took more time to commercialize, both of which can influence the timing of adoption. 

At least 80% of DT corn acres in 2016 were planted with seed conventionally bred for drought tolerance. Just under 20% of DT corn acres were planted with seed genetically engineered for drought tolerance. At the national level, 3% of all U.S. corn acres in 2016 were planted with seed that had been genetically engineered for drought tolerance. However, the vast majority of DT corn planted in 2016 had one or more GE traits, such as herbicide or insect resistance.

The ERS study draws on field level data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) survey of corn producers for 2016, representing 88% of U.S. planted acres that year.