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Should You Go Non-GMO?

July 29, 2011
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
non gmo
At a U.S. Testing Network field day in Bay City, Wis., this past fall, Charles Brown of Brownseed Genetics talked about non-GMO corn on test.   

Conventional hybrids offer benefits in light of resistance issues and traited seed costs

The rapid acceptance of genetically modified seeds by U.S. farmers during the past decade makes the future of conventional seed products appear bleak at best and, at worst, headed for the same fate as the dinosaur.

USDA reports that 85% of the field corn grown in the U.S. today contains at least one genetic modification, and most contain multiple or stacked traits. Nearly 90% of U.S. soybeans are grown from varieties based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Yet, a small number of farmers, researchers, companies and associations is bucking the traited-seed only trend. "I believe traits should be a tool, not the rule," says Scott Odle.

Odle farms 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans, some with GMOs and some without, in west-central Indiana near Darlington. He also is president of Spectrum Seed Solutions, an independent company dedicated to the development and commercialization of conventional corn hybrids. 2011 marks the first year of commercial seed sales for the company.

Fear is at the core of Odle’s concern about modified genetics—not fear of GMOs, but fear that they soon will be his only option for production. "A lot of guys are tired of not having more choices," he says. "Are we getting value for what we’re paying? Farmers don’t know the answer to that question."

Similar concerns led Practical Farmers of Iowa to develop the U.S. Testing Network (USTN) in 2009. The network consists of a group of seed companies and public and private corn breeders across states in the East and Midwest, according to Sarah Carlson, coordinator for the network. USTN promotes the development and introduction of non-GMO corn hybrids.

Doebler’s Pennsylvania Hybrids Inc., based in Jersey Shore, Pa., joined USTN to preserve farmers’ seed choices, according to Bill Camerer, former owner and now a consultant for the regional company, which was acquired by Pioneer Hi-Bred this year. "I don’t think farmers need to be fully traited all the time," he says.

Camerer believes farmers who want to use non-GMO seed products may benefit from them if they evaluate prospective hybrids for genetic performance first and trait benefits second.

"Some people automatically dismiss conventional hybrids, and they aren’t for everyone, but they are still a worthwhile option for many farms," he says.

genetic crops chart

For a premium. There are non-GMO premiums available to some producers, especially those near river terminals where the grain can be exported, says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois agronomy Extension specialist.

Some other specialty corns, such as white food-grade, may also be grown using non-GMO hybrids.

Midwest Shippers Association, Eden Prairie, Minn., is one organization that helps connect non-GMO hybrid corn growers with potential buyers.

Nafziger anticipates that most other farmers will continue to grow GMO-based corn hybrids, in large part because these tend to contain the highest-performing genetics. Plus, he adds: "The major companies have built their Wall Street reputations on traits, and I don’t see a reversal happening."

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Seed Guide 2011
RELATED TOPICS: Technology, Agronomy, Production, Seed

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