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Rivalry grows in biotech seed industry

(Friday, Jan. 13, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Rivalry grows in biotech seed industry
2. Anti-poverty group calls modified crops helpful
3. Monsanto's latest attempts to contaminate EU with GE Soya revealed
4. Bionic growth for biotech crops
5. Monsanto's man at the U.S. Trade Office
6. The global spread of GMO crops
7. Seeds in their slingshot: Athenix of Durham plans to challenge Monsanto in biotech crop seeds

1. Rivalry grows in biotech seed industry

Christopher Leonard, Associated Press
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Jan 12, 2006

New York- When it comes to buying soybean seed, Tracy Quinlin has connections. Her brother is a local dealer for Monsanto Co., the biggest seed company in the world.

But family ties weren't enough to win Quinlin's business this winter when she shopped for seeds to plant on her 200-acre farm. She was won over by Tim Flowerree, a salesman for Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of Monsanto's biggest competitors.

"Tim made us a better deal for beans," Quinlin said. <.p>

Standing behind the counter of a small farmers' co-op where she works, Quinlin said there were no hard feelings from her brother. After all, business is just business in this farming town of 1,000 people.

"You can't be cutthroat because everybody knows everybody," she said.

The same might not be true at the corporate level, where Pioneer and Monsanto are competing more fiercely than ever for a share of the multibillion-dollar market in genetically engineered crops. About 123 million acres of U.S. farmland was planted with biotech seed in 2005, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Just a handful of companies control the market because they can produce the high-tech crops.

Pioneer represents some of the stiffest competition ever faced by Monsanto, which has been the undisputed king of biotech crops since introducing the first strains 10 years ago. Companies like Pioneer got into the market largely by riding Monsanto's coattails, paying fees to incorporate the company's patented genes into their own lines of seed.

Pioneer is trying to change that. The company is developing and selling its own biotech products and has many more slated for release with the hope of eventually taking market dominance away from Monsanto for the first time. In this David and Goliath battle, Pioneer is clearly not the giant. Its total revenue in 2004 was $2.6 billion, up 13 percent, but still less than half of Monsanto's $5.42 billion. Monsanto's revenue grew 16 percent in 2005 to $6.29 billion; Pioneer will report later this month.

Analysts say Pioneer won't seriously upset Monsanto soon, but its long-term plans might pose a threat as it rolls out more of its own biotech crops in coming years. For now, Pioneer has narrowed its line of attack to what it knows best: corn.

Maize was the first crop Pioneer developed when it was founded in 1926. Since then, it has grown to control about 31 percent of the U.S. market in corn seed, according to analysts at Bank of America.

However, Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant told investors recently that Monsanto has gained market share for corn seed every year since 2001.

His message hit home with investors, who have sent Monsanto's stock from $54.47 a share to $80.30 over the last year.

The battle to win seed business is largely played out during the winter months, when farmers like Elmer Martin buy supplies to plant in the spring.

Martin was sitting in the office of Pioneer saleswoman Pat Stemme, who like many Pioneer representatives also helps run a family farm. Martin told Stemme he was buying competitor Monsanto's brand of Asgrow soybeans to plant on his farm near Centralia, Mo., because he's thinking of every penny this year.

Prices for fuel and fertilizer are up; prices for crops are flat. Salespeople for Pioneer and Monsanto have been working hard for his business, making it a tough decision, he said.

"You need to plant a little of everybody's," Martin explained. "To do your own research on your own land."

2. Anti-poverty group calls modified crops helpful

By Rachel Melcer

Genetically modified crops are not a panacea for world hunger and poverty, but they are making a significant - and growing - contribution, according to a report made public Wednesday by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

About 7.7 million subsistence farmers planted biotech crops last year, up from 7.5 million in 2004. Most are cotton growers in China, India, South Africa and the Philippines. Their incomes, typically $1 a day, have risen 25 percent to 30 percent with the use of biotech crops, which improve yield and reduce the need to apply costly weed- and insect-killers, said Clive James, chair of ISAAA's board and author of the report.

"It's not a silver bullet. It is a technology, like any other technology, with strengths and weaknesses," James said. ISAAA is a not-for-profit devoted to reducing poverty by boosting farm income and crop productivity. The group has been supported by foundations and companies, including Monsanto Co. and the Monsanto Fund.

To boost production, farmers need a combination of biotech traits, high-quality seeds and good conventional agronomic practices, James said. Biotech crops "are a contribution, not a solution, to the alleviation of poverty."

Yet, these crops are controversial. Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit group that opposes the technology, contends that they could harm the environment, reduce biodiversity and lead to "super weeds" that could resist the most widely used herbicide. In a report issued Tuesday, the group questioned the technology's benefits.

Biotech crops are genetically engineered with traits that appeal to growers, such as the ability to ward off certain pests and to withstand applications of glyphosate herbicide. Companies, led by Monsanto Co. of Creve Coeur, as well as public institutes are developing biotech seeds that will make crops easier to use for food processors and healthier for consumers.

Growth in the use of biotech crops in developing countries - including Brazil, one of the world's top agriculture economies - is outpacing acreage expansion in industrialized nations that have approved the technology, the report said.

In part, this is because the United States already has widely adopted biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. More than 123 million U.S. acres were planted with these crops last year - 55 percent of the total 222 million acres planted with biotech crops in 21 nations. So, countries that are newer to the technology have more room for rapid expansion.

Most of the crops were developed and are sold by Monsanto. Last year, it was the sole purveyor of seeds that are "stacked" with more than one genetic trait, though DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International division and Dow Agro Sciences LLC jointly launched a corn product with two traits for the 2006 planting season.

By stacking traits, companies can maximize profits and value on every acre, and farmers can see added benefits with the use of a single seed. About 20 percent of biotech acres in United States were planted with stacked traits, the report said.

Overall, global acreage of biotech crops grew by 11 percent in 2005 over the prior year. This was the smallest gain seen in a decade of planting, because of a decrease in overall cotton planting in China as well as drought and poor weather conditions in other parts of the world, James said.

The market value of biotech seeds, including fees levied for using the technology, was $5.25 billion in 2005 and should rise to $5.5 billion this year, the report said. Biotech crops, harvested and sold, fetched about $50 billion last year.

Friends of the Earth said biotech crops benefit big corporations - namely, Monsanto - rather than farmers or consumers. Its report said adoption of the technology is a sign of Monsanto's "objectionable" influence over policymakers in many countries and international bodies.

Chris Horner, a Monsanto spokesman, said that report contains old information that major scientific studies have refuted.

"The main thing is, farmers are using this and adopting it at the rate they are because of the benefits," he said. "We can't make farmers do anything."

3. Monsanto's latest attempts to contaminate EU with GE Soya revealed

January, 11

Berlin. Greenpeace today, joined by a former manager of Monsanto and Limagrain in Romania, Mr Dragos Dima, at a press conference at the International Green Week in Berlin exposed how Monsanto will contaminate EU agriculture with genetically engineered (GE) Soya.

U.S. biotech giant made an application in December 2005 to the European Union to grow its genetically engineered (GE) 'Roundup Ready' soybeans across the whole of Europe once its current license permitting the beans' import but not cultivation expires in 2006.

"Ten years after the introduction of Monsanto's GE Soya into the environment and our food, we have collected enough data from around the world to be able to say that this product should have never been approved in the first place. Recent Greenpeace research in Romania has exposed the fact that since the company has introduced GE Soya; things have gone totally out of control. European member states should avoid Romania's example, protect European agriculture and oppose Monsanto's application," says Susanne Fromwald from Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe.

A new Greenpeace report reveals that the GE Soya crop in Romania covers more hectares than are officially registered. Due to illegal cultivation and uncontrollable contamination, conventional and organic farming is now impossible in many regions.

"Transgenic seeds are a poisoned promise. Romania did not have any scientific and public debate prior to the commercial introduction. Neither the authorities, nor the companies applied the precautionary principle in assessing the impact of these crops in agriculture. Year after year, the acreage of the herbicide resistant soybeans increased uncontrollably," stated Mr Dima, who left Monsanto in 1999, when the GE soybeans were first introduced in Romania.

Romanian Government officials, reacting to Greenpeace's findings, announced that the cultivation of GE crops should be reduced in 2006 and phased out completely by 2007, when it is due to join the EU. However, Monsanto filing an application for the whole of Europe now would effectively prevent Romania ridding itself of GE crops and GE contamination.

Experience in Argentina and the United States has showed the cultivation of Monsanto's GE soybeans contaminates conventional and organic agriculture. Furthermore, it has been reported that the cultivation of these crops often leads to the increased use of pesticides.

Increasing rain forest destruction, especially in Argentina, is also closely related to the expansion of GE soy planting. Recent research also shows irregularities of the introduced genetic construct, which could cause unintended effects in these crops. Some alarming health signals were reported after feeding trials with mice.

Greenpeace opposes the release of GE Soya into the environment and the food chain and is asking the European member states to reject Monsanto's application.

4. Bionic growth for biotech crops

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Since genetically modified crops were first planted a decade ago, the acreage devoted to them worldwide has been growing at double-digit rates, and it did so again last year, jumping 11 percent to 222 million acres, according to a new report.

The crops are gaining popularity in middle-income countries such as China, India and Brazil, the report says, with small cotton farmers in particular embracing a technology that allows them to grow more cotton while reducing the use of chemical pesticides.

The report notes that the world's most important food crop, rice, could be on the verge of a transformation. Iran has already commercialized gene-altered rice and China appears nearly ready to do so, the report says. Widespread acceptance of such rice could put crop biotechnology into the hands of the tens of millions of small rice farmers who grow nearly half the calories eaten by the human race.

Commercialization of rice that has been genetically altered to resist insects "has enormous implications for the alleviation of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, not only for the rice-growing and -consuming countries in Asia, but for all biotech crops and their acceptance on a global basis," says the report, compiled by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. The group publishes an annual review, funded partly by the Rockefeller Foundation, that is considered the definitive global analysis of trends in crop biotechnology.

Proponents of the technology welcomed the findings, saying the spread of biotech crops demonstrates their usefulness for farmers and society. But two advocacy groups preemptively attacked the new report before it was published, putting out reports of their own this week that questioned industry "hype" and disputed the impact of gene-altered crops.

The Polaris Institute, an anti-globalization group in Ottawa, acknowledged that biotech crop acreage appears to be increasing but noted that the technology is still concentrated in a handful of countries, with the United States, Argentina, Canada and Brazil accounting for 90 percent of the world's biotech acreage. The group pointed out that the technology is widely used in only a few crops -- mainly cotton, corn, soy and canola.

Industry claims that the technology would help alleviate poverty in Africa have proven illusory so far, the group said, a point echoed by a report from environmental group Friends of the Earth. And the groups said growing biotech crops can hurt farmers' export markets in countries that are skeptical of the technology.

"Instead of wholesale adoption, we are seeing at most experimentation," David Macdonald, a Polaris Institute analyst, said in a statement. "Worldwide farmers have good reason to be wary."

It's clear, in fact, that even after a decade of growth, biotech crops are grown on only a small fraction of the world's arable land -- well under 1 percent. But the trend is also clear: When they were first commercialized in 1996, biotech crops were planted on 4.3 million acres in six countries, but the report says that by 2005 farmers were planting them on 222 million acres in 21 countries. "Biotech crops deliver substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to farmers and, increasingly, to society at large," the report says.

Almost a third of the agricultural land in the United States is planted in gene-altered crops, and more than half in Argentina and Paraguay, the report shows. Brazilian farmers had been illegally planting biotech crops for years, but that country has now legalized them and the acreage there is growing rapidly, the report says.

The report says China stands to become a major player in the field. Clive James, chairman of the group that published the report, estimated that 2,000 scientists in China are working on numerous gene-modified crops. "If we look at the investment in China in biotech crops, it is very significant," he said in a conference call yesterday from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Agricultural companies, led by Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, created the first biotech crops in the 1990s by moving genes from other species into plants. Bacterial genes give some plants the ability to resist worms, and others gain the ability to survive heavy applications of herbicides that kill nearby weeds.

But a controversy erupted over the technology in Europe in the late 1990s, with advocacy groups saying the crops posed unnecessary environmental risks and much of the European public agreeing.

The United States has been trying to pry open the European market, with some recent success. The new report notes that five of 25 European countries are now growing at least small quantities of biotech crops, though only Spain has embraced the technology in a big way.

The United States filed a complaint against Europe over the issue with the World Trade Organization, and a ruling is expected soon. The European Commission in Brussels has been battling resistance by individual countries and this week ordered Greece to permit a variety of gene-altered corn.

5. Monsanto's man at the U.S. Trade Office

Grist Magazine, 9January 2006

When Bush wants to kill a program or a department, he picks a clown to run it. Think of FEMA's disgraced "Brownie," who did such a "heck of a job" when disaster struck the Gulf Coast. When the president sees something real at stake for his corporate clients, though, he tends to anoint an ultra-qualified pro: someone, typically, with direct ties to the industry in question. In surely the most spectacular example, Bush placed responsibility for creating energy policy in the crude-stained hands of Dick Cheney.

The world of agriculture presents its own examples. Over on Bitter Greens Journal last year, I documented how the president planted an industrial-corn man, with ties to corn-processing behemoth Archer-Daniels Midland, as deputy head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://bittergreensgazette.blogspot.com/2005/04/archer-daniels-midlands-man-at -usda_29.html

Now I present you with Richard Crowder: erstwhile president of the American Seed Trade Association, a 15-year veteran of Dekalb Genetics Corporation (now part of Monsanto), former exec at Conagra and Pillsbury -- and newly minted chief agricultural negotiator for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of Crowder's new position. The WTO's latest phase of free-trade talks, known as the Doha round, have bogged down in a dispute between the U.S., Europe, and much of the global south over agriculture subsidies. As I reported here, Bush seems ready to trash the U.S. subsidy system, which props up industrial agriculture to the tune of about $15 billion per year, so long as the WTO rams open developing-world markets to U.S. goods. As USDA chief Mike Johanns recently put it, "We must use the WTO to force open markets for U.S. products."

That, evidently, is Crowder's job: muscling poor countries into exposing their farmers to competition from their highly capitalized U.S. counterparts.

He'll have another big job, too -- this one directly pertaining to his background as a global champion of genetically modified crops. (Note: at Dekalb Genetics, Crowder "managed all of [the company's] business outside of the United States involving more than 30 countries," according to a U.S. Trade Rep press release.)

The United States is locked in a dispute with the European Union over the acceptance of GM crops. To maintain their outlandish growth rates, Monsanto and its ilk need access to the giant European market for corn and soybean seeds. The U.S. government has predictably taken up the GM seed industry's cause, petitioning the WTO to strike down the EU's anti-GM stance. Crowder will be there to push that agenda.

Finally, the GM seed giants cannot thrive without a draconian intellectual-property framework, one that lets them enforce long-term claims to royalties on their genetic traits -- even when those traits spread through cross-pollination. In the U.S., the industry wields the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, which gives it the power to patent seed traits, and exact royalties from farmers, for 20 years after introducing a variety.

Crowder's challenge will be to create similar frameworks in high-producing countries like Brazil and Argentina, where farmers have embraced GM corn and soy seeds while flouting Monsanto's demands for royalty payments.

As a model, he may look to Iraq. Well over a year ago, the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority enshrined a seed framework that reads like something dreamed up by a Monsanto attorney.

6. The global spread of GMO crops

CounterPunch, January 7 / 8, 2006

Felix Ballarin spent 15 years of his life developing a special organically-grown variety of red corn. It would bring a high price on the market because local chicken farmers said the red color lent a rosy hue to the meat and eggs from their corn-fed chickens. But when the corn emerged from the ground last year, yellow kernels were mixed with the red. Government officials later confirmed with DNA tests that Mr. Ballarin's crop had become contaminated with a genetically modified (GMO) strain of corn.

Because Mr. Ballarin's crop was genetically contaminated, it no longer qualified as "organically grown," so it no longer brought a premium price. Mr. Ballarin's 15-year investment was destroyed overnight by what is now commonly known as "genetic contamination." This is a new phenomenon, less then 10 years old -- but destined to be a permanent part of the brave new world that is being cobbled together as we speak by a handful of corporations whose goal is global domination of food.

Mr. Ballarin lives in Spain, but the story is the same all over the world: genetically modified crops are invading fields close by (and some that are not so close by), contaminating both the organic food industry and the "conventional" (non-GMO and non-organic) food industry.

As a result of genetically contamination of non-GMO crops in Europe, the U.S., Mexico, Australia and South America, the biotech food industry had an upbeat year in 2005 and things are definitely looking good for the future. As genetically modified pollen from their crops blows around, contaminating nearby fields, objections to genetically modified crops diminish because non-GMO alternatives become harder and harder to find. A few more years of this and there may not be many (if any) truly non-GMO crops left anywhere. At that point there won't be any debate about whether to allow GMO-crops to be grown here or there -- no one will have any choice. All the crops in the world will be genetically modified (except perhaps for a few grown in greenhouses on a tiny scale). At that point, GMO will have contaminated essentially the entire planet, and the companies that own the patents on the GMO seeds will be sitting in the catbird seat.

It is now widely acknowledged that GMO crops are a "leaky technology" -- that it to say, genetically modified pollen is spread naturally on the wind, by insects, and by humans. No one except perhaps some officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were actually surprised to learn this. GMO proponents have insisted for a decade that genetic contamination could never happen (wink, wink) and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials want along with the gag. And so of course GMO crops are now spreading everywhere by natural means, just as you would expect.

It couldn't have turned out better for the GMO crop companies if they had planned it this way.

Growers of organically-grown and conventional crops are naturally concerned that genetic contamination is hurting acceptance of their products. Three California counties have banned GM crops. Anheuser- Busch Co., the beer giant, has demanded that its home state (Missouri) keep GMO rice fields 120 miles away from rice it buys to make beer. The European Union is now trying to establish buffer zones meant to halt the unwanted spread of GM crops. However, the Wall Street Journal reported November 8 that, "Such moves to restrict the spread of GM crops often are ineffective. Last month in Australia, government experts discovered biotech canola genes in two non-GM varieties despite a ban covering half the country. 'Regretfully, the GM companies appear unable to contain their product," said Kim Chance, agriculture minister for the state of Western Australia, on the agency's Web site.

For some, this seems to come as a shocking revelation -- genetically modified pollen released into the natural environment spreads long distances on the wind. Who would have thought? Actually, almost anyone could have figured this out. Dust from wind storms in China contaminates the air in the U.S. Smoke from fires in Indonesia can be measured in the air half-way around the world. Pollen is measurable in the deep ice of antarctica. No one should ever have harbored any doubt that genetically modified pollen would spread everywhere on the Earth sooner or later. (We are now exactly 10 years into the global experiment with GMO seeds. The first crops were planted in open fields in the U.S. in 1995. From this meager beginning, global genetic contamination is now well along.)

Who benefits from all this? Think of it this way: when all crops on earth are genetically contaminated, then the seed companies that own the patented seeds will be in a good position to begin enforcing their patent rights. They have already taken a test case to court and won. In 2004, Monsanto (the St. Louis, Mo. chemical giant) won a seven-year court battle against a 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer whose fields had been contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified plants. The Supreme Court of Canada court ruled that the farmer -- a fellow named Percy Schmeiser -- owed Monsanto damages for having Monsanto's patented crops growing illegally in his field.

Armed with this legal precedent, after genetically modified crops have drifted far and wide, Monsanto, Dow and the other GMO seed producers will be in a position to muscle most of the world's farmers. It is for cases exactly like this that the U.S. has spent 30 years creating the WTO (world trade organization) -- to settle disputes over "intellectual property rights" (such as patents) in secret tribunals held in Geneva, Switzerland behind closed doors without any impartial observers allowed to attend. Even the results of WTO tribunals are secret, unless the parties involved choose to reveal them. Let me see -- a dirt farmer from India versus Monsanto and Dow backed by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Treasury. I'm struggling to predict who might win such a politico- legal dispute conducted by a secret tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland.

During 2005, it was discovered that GMO crops have not lived up to their initial promise of huge profits for farmers and huge benefits for consumers. It was also discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not enforced its own strict regulations that were intended to prevent experimental GMO seeds to accidentally contaminating nearby fields. GMO crops were supposed to produce important human health benefits - and the be developed under super- strict government control - but all these promises have turned out to be just so much eye wash.. GMOs were supposed to reduce reliance on dangerous pesticides -- but in fact they have had the opposite effect. Monsanto's first GMO crops were designed to withstand drenching in Monsanto's most profitable product, the weed killer Round-Up -- so farmers who buy Monsanto's patented "Round- up ready" seeds apply more, not less, weed killer.

But so what? Who cares if GMO seeds don't provide any of the benefits that were promised? Certainly not the seed companies. Perhaps benefits to the people of the world were never the point. Perhaps the point was to get those first GMO crops in the ground -- promise them the moon! -- and then allow nature to take its course and contaminate the rest of the planet with patented pollen. The intellectual property lawsuits will come along in good time. Patience, dear reader, patience. Unlike people, corporations cannot die, so our children or our grandchildren may find themselves held in thrall by two or three corporations that have seized legal control of much of the world's food supply by getting courts (backed by the threat of force, as all courts ultimately are) to enforce their intellectual property rights.

The Danish government has passed a law intended to slow the pace of genetic contamination. The Danes will compensate farmers whose fields have become contaminated, then the Danish government will seek recompense from the farmer whose field originated the genetic contamination, assuming the culprit can be pinpointed. This may slow the spread of genetic contamination, but the law is clearly not designed to end the problem.

Yes, it has been a good year for the GMO industry. None of the stated benefits of their products have materialized -- and the U.S. government regulatory system has been revealed as a sham -- but enormous benefits to the few GMO corporations are right on track to begin blossoming. For Monsanto, Dow and Novartis, a decent shot at gaining control over much of the world's food supply is now blowing on the wind and there's no turning back. As the Vice-President of plant genetics for Dow Agrosciences said recently, "There will be come continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the bottle."

Peter Montague is editor of the indispensable Rachel's Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: peter@rachel.org

7. Seeds in their slingshot: Athenix of Durham plans to challenge Monsanto in biotech crop seeds

Sabine Vollmer, Staff Writer
The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)
January 6, 2006 Friday

The soy milk you're drinking and the cotton fabric you're wearing are probably made from biotech crops.

Crops from genetically modified seeds are quickly gaining popularity among farmers. Right now, one company, Monsanto, sells more genetically modified crop seeds to those farmers than any other company worldwide. It is expected to see $3.4 billion in sales this year alone.

But a Durham company with only 38 employees is getting ready to challenge the St. Louis-based giant. And some moneymen think they have a good shot.

Venture capital investors just pumped another $13 million into Athenix. That money will allow scientists to continue to work on what the company hopes will be its first product: seeds that are genetically modified so that their plants will remain healthy even when sprayed with glyphosate, the weed killer better known as Roundup. If they're successful, the seeds will come to market in 2009.

"Monsanto now has competition," said Jerry Caulder, a former senior executive with Monsanto who is chairman of Athenix's board of directors.

Monsanto developed Roundup in the early 1970s, and until now has had a lock on how to make crops resistant to the herbicide.

Competitors in the crop seed business have developed genetically modified seeds that can survive other herbicides. But none has worked against Roundup.

Farmers love Roundup, Caulder said, because it's the most efficient weed killer on the market. Caulder helped develop Roundup, and calls it the single-best herbicide in the world. It's not toxic to animals. It degrades in the soil within two weeks. And it's cheap, because it's no longer protected by patents.

Athenix researchers discovered their antidote to glyphosate -- or Roundup -- in microbes. Microbes are microorganism, such as bacteria, that can be found in the soil.

The researchers mined pieces of microbial genetic information and inserted them into cells of corn, soybean and rice plants. During the past 18 months, seeds resulting from that work were planted along with seeds that weren't genetically modified, said Nadine Carozzi, Athenix's vice president of product development. When the resulting plants were sprayed with glyphosate, the plants containing the microbial gene remained healthy and green. The others turned brown and dried up.

Athenix's microbe collection has led researchers to other genetic traits valuable in crop protection, including one that repels nematodes, said Nicholas Duck, Athenix's vice president of research.

Nematodes are microscopic parasites that feed on the roots of soybean plants, causing about $1 billion in crop damage every year.

Several companies are working on soybean seeds that repel nematodes, said Mike Koziel, Athenix's chief executive. "We believe we have the largest collection of insect resistance and nematode resistance genes in the industry."

To advance additional products in the development pipeline, the company plans to hire as many as 15 scientists and nearly double its office and lab space to about 20,000 square feet this year.

When Athenix was founded in 2001, it wasn't popular among agricultural biotech companies to mine microbes for crop protection traits, Koziel said. But the four Athenix founders, who had all worked at large agriculture companies, pursued the idea anyway.

Intersouth Partners, a Durham venture capital firm, was the first investor to support Athenix's idea.

"We're turned on by a rising technology nobody else is doing," said Dennis Dougherty, Intersouth's founder. "We like different."

In the past four years, other investors joined Intersouth. They include Hunt Ventures, which is part of the oil, real estate and investment conglomerate of Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt. Athenix has raised a total of $43.5 million in venture capital, and the latest fund-raiser was completed in 60 days.

Athenix can thank not only its research but farmers for the investments. As more and more farmers have accepted biotech crops, the market for genetically modified seeds has grown.

Ten years after the first genetically modified seeds were sown, more than half the soybeans and more than a quarter of the cotton grown worldwide are considered biotech crops, according to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a nonprofit organization that was founded by British agricultural scientist Clive James 15 years ago. Most of the biotech crops are genetically modified to withstand pests and weed killers.

ISAAA reported that annual revenue from genetically modified crops reached about $5 billion in 2004, and is projected to increase to $19 billion by 2010.

As Athenix is getting closer to compete in that market, it's reasonable to suspect the company is gaining prominence as an acquisition target, Caulder said.

Any of the six large crop production companies, including Bayer, Syngenta and BASF, could be interested, he said. Of course, "Monsanto could conclude, 'Let's buy them first.' "