4 Questions To Ask Before Switching From GMO to Conventional Crops

The first stumbling block in transitioning to organic farming is your own perception, says Michigan farmer Joel Layman. “I had to buy the organic concept mentally.” ( Chad Tidey )

One of the greatest barriers to growing non-GMO corn or soybeans is often the risk—what if the yields aren’t as high as your experience with traited crops? Bushels create paychecks and if you’re going to consider switching to a non-traited alternative product, it’s important to prove the money works.

On his Berrien Center, Mich. farm, Joel Layman grows corn, soybeans and produce. When he started in 2007, he used traited GMO corn and soybean plants on every acre, and in 2013 he started dabbling in non-GMO and organic production.

Over time, he transitioned more acres into non-GMO crops. Along the way, he kept a laser focus on maximizing yields with smart agronomic decisions. Couple his in-field know-how with advances in non-GMO corn and soybeans, and Layman’s commitment has been rewarded beyond the premiums he receives for the organic crops.

“The breeding has advanced just as quickly in non-traited corn as it has traited corn,” says Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seed. “If you could plant the best available 100-day non-GMO hybrid next to the best available traited product in a field side by side, and you could eliminate insect and pest pressure, there’s just as much yield in the conventional, non-GMO corn as in traited corn.”

However, he says soybeans have not kept pace with traited varieties. With weed pressure added on top of breeding challenges, non-GMO soybeans are often more challenging.

If you’re considering switching to non-GMO products for price, premiums or another reason, here’s what you should consider:

  • Are there naturally bred traits you should look for? “I look for traits that are desirable for my end user,” Layman says. “If they prefer a certain hybrid or variety that has more or less protein, I’ll use that. We’re trying to build value into a commodity and it starts with the seed purchase.”
  • Should you seek out defensive traits? “[On my organic acres] I can’t use seed treatment or conventional fertility products, so ‘racehorse’ hybrids aren’t a factor for me,” Layman says. “I look at more defensive traits like standability, emergence, some of those types of factors.”
  • What’s your insect pressure? “Clearly traits are hugely advantageous when there are insect problems,” Ehrhardt says. With traits, control is within the plant which can reduce damage compared to non-GMO hybrids that require more scouting and reactionary spraying when insects are present.
  • Do you need a premium? “With corn, about 95% of our conventional customers plant it with no expectation of a premium—it just makes economic sense with the seed savings regardless,” Erhardt says. However, he recommends securing a contract for a premium if you’re growing non-GMO soybeans because of the potential challenges.

Conventional corn seed can average in the $150 to $170 range per bag—a significant savings compared to some GMO varieties. However, it’s important to consider added costs such as insecticides, weed control options and fungicides when calculating costs.

“If you’re trying this for the first time and getting a premium, understand there will be a trade off,” Layman says. “You will be expected to participate agronomically in the growing season in a way you’re not asked to with traited products.”