Is it possible to create non-GMO farming zones?
Kade McBroom wants to create a non-GMO farming zone in southern Missouri’s Bootheel region. He hopes to persuade farmers in the region to grown non-GMO soybeans to supply his new processing facility. Farmers will earn a premium price for their soybeans and have a convenient location for delivering them.
“We want to encourage farmers to switch over to non-GMO,” said McBroom.
McBroom and six other farmers are co-owners of the facility in Malden, MO. Their company, Malden Specialty Soy, LLC, will produce soybean meal and soybean oil using an expeller-pressed process. The farmers hope to sell their processed soy products to the fast-growing non-GMO feed market.
“We hope to create a hub for non-GMO and create opportunities for row crop and livestock farmers,” McBroom said.
Malden Specialty Soy’s new facility will launch in January 2016.
McBroom’s group may be able to attract farmers because there are already a number of farmers producing non-GMO soybeans in the Bootheel region.
“Most farmers that grow non-GMO say it is the economics—lower seed costs, the ability to save seed, the good yields, no weed resistance problems with glyphosate, and the premiums they can earn,” McBroom said.
Non-GMO farming areas
Is it possible to create such non-GMO farming zones in the US? Several counties in California and Oregon have banned production of genetically modified crops, but such bans would have no chance of passing in the Midwestern states where most of the GM corn and soybeans are grown. There are no dedicated non-GMO crop production areas in the US though there are areas where more non-GMO corn and soybeans are grown. Farmers in Ohio, western Indiana, and southern Michigan are known for producing non-GMO soybeans.
IOM Grain, which stands for Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, contracts farmers in those regions to grown non-GMO soybeans.
“The rich soils in these areas produce soybeans with higher protein and oil content, which are valued for food use,” said Erik Loucks, IOM manager.
North Dakota and Western Minnesota are also known for non-GMO food-grade soybean production.
“This area is sought after by Southeast Asian buyers due to the superior quality of the soybeans,” said Gene Leach, crop production specialist at SK Food International. “Disease and insect pressure are much less of a problem the farther north soybeans are grown.”
Non-GMO crops near rivers; NE Arkansas poultry producers
There is also non-GMO corn and soybean production concentrated along the Illinois, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers for easy transportation to export markets, according to Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain.
“Japanese markets have looked for supplies from those areas for decades; areas that accommodate water freight year round,” Clarkson said.
He also said there are small groups of farmers in different areas with adjacent fields producing non-GMO corn and soybeans to earn premium prices and minimize cross pollination from GM corn fields.
“Mostly such efforts are found in proximity to non-GMO market delivery points,” Clarkson said.
Other areas with concentrations of non-GMO crops include northern and eastern Iowa, southern Illinois, western Tennessee, and northeast Arkansas.
The latter area could see increasing production of non-GMO corn and soybeans because poultry producers Peco Foods and Ozark Mountain Poultry plan to open feed facilities there, according to Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist at the University of Arkansas.
“They want large quantities of non-GMO corn and soybeans,” Ross said. “Having non-GMO corn and soybean production concentrated around feed plants makes sense.”
Non-GMO ingredient company Ingredion contracts many farmers to grow non-GMO corn in Indiana and other states to supply the company’s Indiana processing facility.
“These farmers may be concentrated in locations that support our network,” said Nate Yates, Ingredion business director.
Minimize cross pollination, herbicide drift
The increased consumer demand for non-GMO food could make non-GMO production zones more likely.
“The value comes from the consumer; you have to have demand and to be able to supply the demand,” said Scot Shively, president of Premium Ag Products, a farmer-owned company supplying identity preserved non-GMO corn and soybeans in northeast Missouri.
One big advantage to having dedicated non-GMO production areas is that they would reduce the likelihood of cross pollination and contamination from GM corn fields.
“Obviously the more concentrated the area the better chance for non-GMO grain purity,” said Bob Miller, owner of Iowa-based Miller Hybrids.
“We do believe there is value in concentrating growing areas,” Yates said. “The two primary benefits are enhanced protection against GM pollen drift and glyphosate herbicide drift.”
Ross said that herbicide drift is the biggest problem facing non-GMO producers.
“Having dedicated non-GMO areas would have the advantage of reducing drift,” he said.
“Would need cooperation on all sides”
There would be challenges to creating non-GMO crop zones. One is that many farmers grow both non-GMO and GM crops.
“Lots of growers plant non-GMO soybeans and triple stack GM corn for better weed management,” Loucks said.
“You would have to offer them an extremely high premium for their crops to get everyone to go along with it,” said Joe Hanusik, plant manager, Ohio-based KG Agri Products. “Then you might price yourself out of the market.”
Another challenge is that non-GMO farmers are greatly outnumbered in terms of numbers and acres. More than 90% of corn and soybeans grown in the US are GM.
“We have small pockets of four to six growers in areas of Ohio that grow non-GMO soybeans for us but then there could be 40 to 50 growing GM crops,” Hanusik said.
Finally, getting farmers, who tend to be very independent, to work together in a non-GMO zone could be a challenge.
“You would have to have cooperation on all sides,” Loucks said.
“Good luck getting a dozen or more farmers in one area to do the same thing, especially growing non-GMO crops, but we should try,” said Joe Roberts, owner of Roberts Seed.
Long-term contracts with premiums, processing facility
Getting farmers to participate in a non-GMO zone would require significant incentives.
“A processing facility or receiving facility that would offer a reliable market with reliable premiums within easy shipping distance would be a definite incentive,” Clarkson said.
Non-GMO grain buyers emphasize that having consistent demand with long-term contracts would be a must.
“Growers want markets that are stable and profitable year after year without fluctuation,” Leach said.
“Long term contracts would get the job done,” Roberts said. “A processing facility in close proximity would be great if the crops need to be processed.”
Having good non-GMO seed varieties is also important.
“Providing high yielding soybeans to the growers and having those same soybeans also provide excellent quality to the end user is perhaps the most daunting task,” Leach said.
Ross said that the new non-GMO feed facilities in northeast Arkansas would like that farmers have their own grain storage bins.
“The feed companies are looking for farmers that have on-farm storage, so they can store grain until the feed mill needs it,” he said.
Kade McBroom is optimistic that there are enough incentives to attract more non-GMO farmers to grow for his processing facility.
“We have a great group of producers that want to make this happen,” he said. “We are farmer owned and operated. We are all really excited about it.”