As the market for non-GMO foods has grown, demand has extended down through the food production supply chain to seeds. Non-GMO corn seed companies have emerged to meet the demand as more farmers switch to non-GMO production or consider a switch. These companies include Albert Lea Seed, Prairie Hybrids, Spectrum Seed, Byron Seeds, Sentinel Seeds, and Kussmaul Seeds, among others.
Josh Richey, CEO of Spectrum Seed, based in Lafayette, Indiana sees a “trickle-down effect” from consumers to the seed industry.
“Consumers want non-GMO fed protein such as poultry, eggs, meat, and dairy. Dairy farmers producing non-GMO milk want non-GMO seed to produce non-GMO grain and silage,” he says.
“There is a ton of conventional, non-GMO seed corn being sold,” says Mac Ehrhardt, co-owner of Albert Lea Seed, based in Albert Lea, Minnesota. “Seven years ago we were one of the last companies selling conventional corn seed. Now many companies are selling it, including the bigger companies, because farmers are asking for it.”
A recent article in Hoosier Ag Today asked “What are more and more growers telling their seed salesmen?” The answer was “No more GMO.” The article also said that seed companies are reporting an increase in orders for non-GMO seeds.
GMO traits not working, non-GMO seed costs less
Several trends are leading farmers to grow non-GMO corn. One is cost. Non-GMO corn seed can cost half as much as genetically modified seed.
“It’s primarily driven by economics. The seed is cheaper,” Ehrhardt says. “Farmers are deciding they can control weeds and insects more cheaply using other methods like crop rotations.”
With a struggling farm economy and low commodity corn and soybean prices, “farmers are doing everything they can to cut costs, and they’re using non-GMO to do that,” says Dave Ross, sales and operations manager at Great Harvest Organics, based in Atlanta, Indiana.
Also, many farmers are finding that the genetically modified traits are failing. Weeds have developed resistance to Roundup/glyphosate herbicide used with Roundup Ready GM corn and soybeans. Insects such as corn rootworm have developed resistance to the GM Bt crops.
“Farmers are using other methods for weed control and questioning why use GMO traits, and they are asking why pay so much for GMO traits if they don’t have corn rootworm pressure,” Richey says. “It’s driven by (low) commodity prices; farmers have to manage margins tighter. That makes non-GMO more appealing.”
However, farmers face tight premiums paid for non-GMO corn and soybeans.
“The demand for non-GMO by consumers is not seen in the prices paid to the farmer,” Ross says.
Non-GMO corn produces competitive yields with GMO
Farmers may also be surprised to learn that—contrary to claims by proponents of GM crops—non-GMO corn produces yields that are competitive or even better than those of GM “stacked” trait varieties. Several Prairie Hybrids’ non-GMO seed varieties were leading yield producers in Iowa State University crop performance tests. Spectrum Seed’s non-GMO seeds out-produced Dekalb’s GM SmartStax®RIB seed by an average of nearly 11 bushels per acre in five field tests in Indiana and Iowa. Non-GMO corn seeds also produced competitive yields to GM stacked trait varieties in the Ohio Corn Performance (OCPTs) tests, according to a report by Peter Thomison, Ohio State University extension specialist.
“Recent OCPTs reveal that some non-transgenic hybrid entries have yield potential comparable to the highest yielding stacked trait entries,” Thomison wrote.
Richey says it is a myth that GM traits increase corn yields.
“The reality is that traits protect the yield that is inherent in the plant. It is genetics that drive yield, not GM traits.”
Gilbert Hostetler, co-owner of Prairie Hybrids, based in Deer Grove, Illinois agrees. “Higher yields are due to diverse genetics. The more diversity in your genetics background, the more yield potential there is.”
Conventional is not non-GMO
Seed suppliers distinguish between conventional and non-GMO corn. Conventional corn doesn’t have GM traits but there are no non-GMO purity requirements. Non-GMO corn has requirements that it meet certain thresholds for non-GMO purity. Farmers who want to sell to a non-GMO feed or food market will need non-GMO corn.
“Purity isn’t enough in conventional if a farmer wants to sell to a non-GMO dairy,” Richey says.
More seed companies are guaranteeing non-GMO seed purity because companies like Dannon require it for non-GMO verification, says Ehrhardt.
“We have (non-GMO) purity guarantees and other companies are also moving in that direction.”
Albert Lea Seed sells ULTRA PURE and PURE corn seeds for organic and non-GMO production. ULTRA PURE seeds are guaranteed to meet a GMO threshold of 0.1 percent while PURE seeds meet a GMO threshold of 1 percent. ULTRA PURE seeds are Non-GMO Project Verified.
Seed companies use systems of identity preservation (IP) to preserve non-GMO purity through every stage of production. These include measures such as isolating non-GMO corn fields from GMO fields, planting seeds later than neighboring GMO fields to avoid cross pollination, segregated storage and processing, and GMO testing to verify purity.
“The best thing we can do is try to have 700 feet of isolation, and, if our field is near a GMO field, delay planting to the end of May or beginning of June,” says Stephen Gray, president and CEO of Sentinel Seeds, based in Ashkum, Illinois. “We have very good results with purity.”
Spectrum’s IP program is third-party verified by the Indiana Crop Improvement Association.
“Our IP program covers everything from seed production to getting the seed to farmers,” Richey says. “We manage that all tightly with third-party oversight to ensure we’ve stayed as clean as possible.”
Spectrum also requires that its seed production fields were not planted with GM corn the year before. This prevents “volunteer” GM corn from emerging in the non-GMO seed fields.
Iowa-based Blue River Organic Seed sells PuraMaize organic corn seed varieties that have a naturally occurring trait called “gametophytic incompatibility” that prevents cross pollination from GM corn.
Stuart Grim, general manager at Blue River, describes PuraMaize as a “tool whose time has come.” The company sells two organic varieties of PuraMaize corn and plans to develop several more in the next few years. PuraMaize is also available as conventional seed for non-GMO production.
Grim says PuraMaize is effective in minimizing cross pollination and contamination from GM corn.
“No one has reported a positive GMO test with PuraMaize, and it has never been rejected (for GMO contamination).”
Overcoming fear of growing non-GMO
Convincing farmers to grow non-GMO corn at a time when GM crops dominate agriculture has been difficult, but that may be changing.
“There has been fear among farmers that if they don’t grow the latest (GMO) traited products, that they won’t be able to compete,” Richey says. “But farmers are starting to question that.”
Gray agrees. “People farm out of fear; they don’t want to make a terrible mistake when 90 percent of their neighbors grow GMO crops. We are trying to help people in that decision making process. It’s a matter of making them feel comfortable (growing non-GMO).”
Gray thinks it’s a good time to be in the non-GMO seed business.
“I think there is just as much excitement in the non-GMO and organic seed breeding area as all the buzz they say there is in biotech. There is a lot going on and there good profit opportunities for farmers.”