DuPont's first-quarter profit beat Wall Street expectations, helped by price hikes and strong sales of insecticides and genetically modified seeds.

The company reaffirmed its 2012 earnings target for a range mostly above expectations, with Chief Executive Ellen Kullman saying DuPont will prioritize research and development spending on food, energy and security products.

Results from DuPont often serve as a barometer for the global economy since its materials are used to produce a range of items, from cars and homes to televisions and smartphones.

Shares of DuPont rose slightly to $53.34 in premarket trading ahead of the company's earnings conference call. They closed at $53.27 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.

First-quarter sales in Europe rose 14 percent, largely due to DuPont's 2011 buyout of Danish food ingredients maker Danisco. The buyout reflected Kullman's desire to stabilize earnings and increase DuPont's presence in the expanding food market.

Sales in Asia were flat, in part because of soft demand for titanium dioxide paint pigment from automobile manufacturers.

Sales in the United States and Latin America both spiked.

The company on Thursday posted net income of $1.49 billion, or $1.57 per share, compared with $1.43 billion, or $1.52 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding a $50 million payment to customers of DuPont's Imprelis herbicide, which damaged certain customers' trees, the company earned $1.61 per share. By that measure, analysts expected $1.55, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales rose 12 percent to $11.3 billion. Analysts expected $11.23 billion.

Companywide, an 8 percent price hike offset a 2 percent drop in volume, as well as currency charges.

Agriculture sales rose 16 percent as farmers stocked up ahead of the North American spring planting season.

Sales of Kevlar, Nomex and other safety equipment slipped 2 percent due to weak demand from industrial customers. Sales of DuPont's bulletproof car kit Armura, which is made with Kevlar and sold in Brazil, rose 70 percent.

The company affirmed its 2012 earnings forecast of $4.20 to $4.40 per share.

DuPont's results come the same day Dutch chemical company AkzoNobel NV AKZO.AS, the world's largest paints maker and owner of the Dulux brand, warned that economic uncertainty - even in some emerging markets - as well as high raw materials prices posed challenges this year.

(Reporting By Ernest Scheyder in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, John Wallace, Dave Zimmerman)