US Testing Network aims to revive non-GMO corn seed breeding

With over 80% of the corn grown in the US genetically modified, and biotechnology companies phasing out non-GMO corn seed varieties, American farmers have fewer choices for finding non-GMO seeds to grow.

Develop new non-GMO corn hybrids

As a result of this narrowing of farmer choice, a new initiative was launched in 2009 by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to address the problem. The US Testing Network (USTN) aims to develop and introduce new non-GMO corn hybrids in the market, while improving the quality and quantity of non-GMO corn hybrids available.

“We wanted to create a network that would work together to make sure we have new seed in the market that’s non-GMO,” says Sarah Carlson, USTN coordinator.

USTN is a group of independent seed companies and public and private corn breeders to test non-GMO corn hybrids across the eastern and Midwestern United States.

Some of the companies involved in the network include Albert Lea Seed House, American Organic Seed, Blue River Hybrids, Brownseed Genetics, Doeblers Hybrids, and Organic Valley. University members include Cornell, Ohio State, and Texas A&M. The Michael Fields Institute is involved, as are public corn breeders from the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Growing network

USTN members tested corn at 36 locations stretching from New England south to North Carolina, west to Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. USTN is analyzing data from the tests, which will lead to the development of new corn hybrids for both conventional, non-GMO and organic production.

Carlson says USTN is growing. “We added 11 testing sites in 2010, and for 2011 we will double or triple the number of organic test sites and add a few conventional, non-GMO sites.”

In addition, four new members are joining USTN. “There is definitely enthusiasm around it,” Carlson says.

Addressing GMO concerns

GMO testing is not a requirement within the network, but Carlson says some members do test their corn for GMO contamination.

Preserving non-GMO integrity is an important aim of several USTN corn breeders. Charlie Brown, owner of USTN member Brownseed Genetics, has developed a Purity Plus program to preserve the non-GMO identity of organic and non-GMO corn seed. Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Institute, Margaret Smith at Cornell University, and Major Goodman at North Carolina State have conducted research on a trait from popcorn, GaS, which blocks incoming pollen. This trait holds promise to block cross pollination from GM corn.

For more information about the US Testing Network, contact Sarah Carlson at 515-232-5661 or email

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, December/January 2011)