Non-GMO corn has its place

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There is no definitive market share shift from GMO corn and soybeans, but the convergence of several factors appears to be pushing some growers away from paying the higher price for traited seed when conventional seed might perform just as well.

There has been an increase in non-GMO varieties entered in the Iowa Crop Performance tests, noted Jim Rouse, director of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association. The big increase in non-GMO varieties is with seed corn. In the corn hybrid test for 2012, 56 out of 259 were conventional hybrids; that is 21 percent. As for soybeans, 23 varieties were conventional out of 226 varieties tested, or 10 percent.

“Some companies mostly enter GMO hybrids, but they have now started to enter one or two conventional hybrids, too, that they might not have entered in the past,” said Rouse. “It is about the same percentage as last year, but it is higher than in 2010. And before that, there didn’t seem to be as much interest in conventional hybrids.”


Spectrum Premium Genetics from Linden, Ind., is an example of a new company entering non-GMO hybrids in the tests. Company President Scott Odle started the company to provide alternatives to GMO hybrids about three years ago. The estimate is that non-GMO corn is about 9 percent of the seed corn market, and Odle predicts that it might be 20 percent in five years.

He suggests that farmers are realizing that traits protect yield and genetics are the underlying yield determinant. And he can show that non-trait hybrids are testing quite well against traited seed.

“If we had used GMOs as a tool instead of the rule, we wouldn’t have a lot of the issues that we have today,” he said. Odle refers to insects showing resistance to Bt seed traits, weeds showing resistance to glyphosate herbicides and stacked trait hybrids that haven’t performed as promised in some cases.

The impetus for Odle to start a seed company was his worry that in five to seven years, without smaller seed companies focusing on non-GMO seed, these alternatives wouldn’t exist, but he is now optimistic about the future.

“I know that we don’t need to plant GMO hybrids every year,” he said. In his own farming operation, he isn’t completely averse to using a Bt-trait seed or Roundup Ready hybrid occasionally if a specific situation calls for it.


Jon Lundgren, Ph.D., entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in South Dakota, said, in general, there seems to be a “developing market for non-GM corn.”

“Bt technology has been so effective for so long that we have eliminated the target pests in a lot of the growing regions. The European corn borer has been driven to such low populations that farmers are starting to wonder where did it go, and do I need to plant Bt corn every year. If the pest isn’t there, then the economic value isn’t there for Bt hybrids.”

The non-Bt option is possible in less prime areas for corn rootworm infestations, too. And the “entomological community” is thinking that going back to a 20 percent refuge of non-GMO corn is a logical move, Lundgren noted.

“In the areas where there is less corn in the rotation and there is no corn on corn, we are selling more conventional hybrids,” said Brad Taylor, vice president of Taylor Seed Farms at White Cloud, Kan. “In Kansas, there is a lot of area where the farmers rotate corn, soybean and wheat—not just corn and beans. The areas where conventional corn is being planted is where there isn’t rootworm, and there hasn’t been corn borer pressure for some time.”

A farmer can save around $50 per acre buying conventional seed compared to traited seed. If a farmer was going to use herbicides other than Roundup or a soil insecticide for secondary pests instead of solely relying on the Bt traits for insect control, then today a conventional hybrid has appeal.

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Joe Scrimger    
Marlette, MI  |  January, 11, 2013 at 12:51 PM

What happens to GMO seed demand if purchases start to be made based on food quality versus just yield, which the industry seems to be stuck on. GMO beans are some of the weakest seed in the market, in respect to succeptablility to fungal disease, according to land grant pathology reports. And Bt is not something I would want on or in my corn flakes in the morning. Roundup residue is starting to effect soil negatively creating more soil disease organisms, versus having farmers move towards a healthy more efficient soil system that creates plants with better disease resistance. It's all in the 'culture' and the type of culture that is being created with GMO's is really not what 'food' and 'farming' should be about.

Eric C    
North Dakota  |  January, 11, 2013 at 05:47 PM

I agree for the most part, GMO's may have their place, but conventional corn and beans give growers more options for dealing with markets and production systems. On a side note - lets stop the trend toward calling GMO crops "hybrids" (as every grower should know, a "hybrid" is a result of breeding while GMO is a result of genetic manipulation - not the same thing).

Missouri  |  January, 15, 2013 at 08:39 AM

Joe, glad you are well fed enough to worry about trivial if not imaginary risks. It's also nice you can earn a living at a computer keyboard instead of hoeing or pulling weeds all summer under a hot sun(real cancer risk). Never before in human history has our food supply been more plentiful, safe and wholesome or produced by a smaller share of people at less risk to their physical health than now, thanks to advanced technology. That you can work an easy job, spend time at a computer and shelter from hot summers safe inside air conditioned buildings is all due to advanced food production methods. I'm all for mixing up the acreage planted with non-GMO to protect against further resistance development, but spare me the fear mongering over nothing. TQ

Iowa  |  January, 16, 2013 at 08:08 AM

Well said TQ

Washington  |  March, 10, 2013 at 09:37 AM

Hello TQ, please reread your post and see if you can explain yourself without labeling or belittling others. Then I invite you to open up to the fact that you do not know the truth regarding GMOs. Your post here suggests you suffer from confirmation bias and I would hazard a guess you experience cognitive dissonance when discussing GMOs. Science is not as exact as the PR folks on either side of an issue would have us believe. The health aspects of GMOs are a tough sell either side of the coin. Aside from the health issues there are many socio economic and environmental reasons why GMOs are not what they purport to be. I could list them here but you would get a broader understanding if you look into it yourself. Starting with the acknowledgement that you do not know the truth will help you and us all. You are not alone -no one knows the truth. Here's a little story: An apple farmer Grows a crop and his neighbor Johny homeowner does not manage pests on his side of the fence and the pests keep infesting his crops infringing on his right to livelihood and severely impacting his pocketbook. Should that farmer just go away? Here is something I would like you to consider: How much do you want to be controlled and influenced by corporations?

michigan  |  August, 09, 2013 at 10:22 PM

Nothing wrong with gmo just the greedy monsatin

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