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.
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."
Still, Nafziger notes: "Some of the recent hybrids didn’t produce as well as farmers and companies had hoped, so we’ve come to realize that you can’t just add more defensive [insect or
herbicide resistance] traits and expect hybrids to be high-yielding."
AgriGold Hybrids still develops conventional non-GMO seed corn, says Chuck Hill, specialty products manager for the company. "It’s 12% to 15% of our business," he says.
The company expects to have three new conventional hybrids, as part of its Giants category for the 2012 season.
Odle believes that some conventional hybrids yield as well if not better than hybrids with stacked traits.
"When farmers ask me ‘What kind of premiums can I get for conventional corn,’ I say, ‘How about 9 bu. per acre?’" he says.
Odle says elite, traited corn hybrids retail for a minimum of $300 per bag, while elite conventional hybrids average between $140 and $170 per bag.
That cost savings plus additional benefits are what he believes make the use of conventional hybrids a sound strategy for farmers today.
For instance, Odle contends that GMO-based seed hybrids often require more energy than conventional hybrids to produce comparable yields, which can contribute to an advantage with conventional products. He says results from his company’s proprietary in-field testing program, which includes comparisons between conventional genetics and elite, GMO-based genetics, reinforce his perspective.
Protect glyphosate. Two other disadvantages of GMO-based products, Odle says, is that their overuse is leading to a lack of genetic diversity within product lines and to resistance issues.
"We didn’t have any corn borer problems for seven or eight years, but last August I started seeing some corn borer flights," he says. He adds that black cutworms were a concern in his fields this year as well.
"We’re not far away from losing control of those pests with the current technologies," he says.
Resistance issues concern USTN’s Carlson as well, as farmers are not taking refuge requirements seriously enough. "We need to keep the Roundup Ready technology, and using conventional farming practices is one way to protect it," she says.
Nafziger cautions that producing conventional corn and soybean crops is not without risks.
"There may be additional input costs associated with them as a result of the increased need for control measures for insects and weeds," he says.
He adds that farmers’ increased use of soil- and seed-applied insecticides creates another potential problem environmentally. "That’s an issue that no one wants to talk about, either," Nafziger says.
Some members of the seed industry fear that genetically pure, conventional seed corn products are a thing of the past because of pollen drift. However, Carlson says, preserving non-GMO integrity is an important aim of several USTN corn breeders. Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Margaret Smith at Cornell University, and Major Goodman at North Carolina State University have conducted research on a trait from popcorn, GaS, which blocks incoming pollen. This trait holds promise to block cross-pollination from genetically modified corn.