Purity Plus™ aims to preserve non-GMO integrity of organic corn seed

A new program developed by Brownseed Genetics, based in Bay City, Wisconsin, with funding support by Organic Valley Family of Farms, aims to preserve the non-GMO integrity of organic corn seed. The new program, Purity Plus, was introduced at the Organic Farming Conference held in LaCrosse, Wisconsin in February.

"Future of non-GMO corn seed in jeopardy"

Organic corn seed is increasingly at-risk to GMO contamination because four biotechnology companies now own the majority of germplasm used to produce foundation corn seed. There is no labeling requirement for GMO presence in corn seed. Organic farmers also face increasing contamination problems with pollen drift from neighboring GM corn fields. "The future source of non-GMO corn seed is in jeopardy," says Charlie Brown, president of Brownseed Genetics.

Brown wanted to address the problem by developing a seed production system and labeling standards that would evaluate the "adventitious presence" of genetically modified traits in corn seed and establish a protocol to preserve the non-GMO integrity of organic corn seed. He says hybrid seed companies and farmers don't know the extent of GMO presence in seed and there is a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward the problem.

"We started with the idea that seed producers and growers have the right to know what they are planting," Brown says.

In 2008, Organic Valley provided a one-year Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO) grant to Brownseed Genetics for the project.

Charlie Brown was confident he could produce pure, non-GMO corn seed based on his experience as a seed producer. "I've been growing corn seed for farms for 35 years and never had an out-cross (cross-pollination) issue. This gave me confidence we could do this."

Brown draws on a family tradition of corn seed production. Founded in 1911, Brownseed Genetics is a third generation seed company, and was one of the first 40 seed companies founded in the US. Today, Brownseed uses advanced molecular assisted breeding techniques to produce new organic seed varieties with desired characteristics such as early maturity and nutrient enhancement.

"More pure than we think"

To begin the project, Brown first needed to determine if there was any adventitious GMO presence in his seed. He worked with BioDiagnostics, Inc., a seed testing laboratory in River Falls, Wisconsin, which grew out and tested 50 of Brown's inbred corn lines used to produce foundation corn seed. Of those 50, 49 tested negative for any GMO presence.

After completing his initial investigations, Brown decided there was a need to establish a new quality standard for organic corn seed. Consequently, he developed the Purity Plus system to preserve the non-GMO status from the production of breeder seed to foundation seed through to the production of commercial hybrid seed. "We had to determine what protocols would allow for a high degree of success producing foundation and hybrid seed with no detectable adventitious GMO presence in a 10,000 or 3,000 seed sample," he says. "If you were going to do it right, what would that look like?"

For growing hybrid corn seed, he established requirements for minimum isolation distances from other corn. There are also planting requirements to manage timing of when corn plants produce silk and pollen. "If we make the effort we can reduce cross- pollination from GM corn," Brown says.

Brown conducted his own test to determine cross pollination. He planted four rows of blue corn with rows of hybrid yellow corn on each side. As expected, cross pollination was heaviest in the rows of yellow corn nearest the blue corn rows. The number of blue corn kernels appearing in the yellow corn rows decreased the farther from the blue corn rows. At 97 feet away, there were no blue kernels in the yellow corn. Pollen availability and timing are also crucial factors to limit incursion of outside pollen. "From this one data point, and other published papers on the subject, the science suggests that we may be more pure than we think. I'm encouraged by that," Brown says.

A statistical method for evaluating non-GMO genetic purity was also established. For foundation corn seed, the label will read "none found in 10,000 seed sample" which is statistically equivalent to 0.00 - 0.03% at the 95% probability level. For hybrid corn seed, the label will read "none found in 3,000 seed sample" which is statistically equivalent to 0.00 - 0.1% at the 95% probability level. There are also standards for seed quality that address off-type plants, seed purity, color, texture, and germination.

Third-party verification

Purity Plus is designed to be a third-party certification program. Charlie Brown is now negotiating with the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) who would act as third-party certification agencies and administer the program.

Minnesota and other state crop improvement associations would also maintain a database of Purity Plus certified corn hybrids that farmers can access.

Brown is confident Purity Plus can work based on a successful case study. Pure, non-GMO foundation corn seed from France was grown to produce hybrids on a 300-acre farm near Champaign, Illinois. The resulting hybrids tested negative for adventitious GMO presence.

Brownseed Genetics intends to offer the Purity Plus program to all corn breeders and hybrid seed producers in the organic and conventional industries. Last year, Brownseed Genetics produced three Purity Plus corn seed lots for a private breeder.


Brown acknowledges challenges facing Purity Plus. The biggest is that while Purity Plus certified seed is a new program providing seed relatively free of GMOs, farmers may not be able to avoid pollen drift from neighboring GM corn fields. This is because organic corn fields tend to be smaller and are often surrounded by large GM corn fields. Grain buyers may test organic corn for GMOs and positive tests may lead to rejection of loads from farmers. Such incidents have already occurred.

Brown says there needs to be sufficient "pull through" support from the market for Purity Plus. "There needs to be adequate value for each party of the value-chain to participate."

Organic Valley supports Brown's work. "Establishing such high standards for organic corn seed production will go a long way toward protecting the integrity of the organic movement. We still need to establish the liability of the biotechnology for GMO contamination but Charlie's standards will at least give farmers a clean starting point for production," says Lowell Rheinheimer, Organic Valley's farm resources manager.

For more information contact Deb Drotos at ddrotos@brownseed.com or by phone at 715-594-3355.

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, April 2010)