Supporters of genetically modified seeds often claim that GM varieties produce greater yields than conventional, non-GMO seed. But, results of recent field trials of hybrid corn seed and published research shows that non-GMO seed varieties perform as well as or even better than GM seed.
Greater yields of non-GMO corn
Minnesota-based Albert Lea Seeds’ non-GMO seeds recently outperformed many GM varieties in field trials held by Farmers’ Independent Research of Field Technologies this year. Albert Lea Seeds’ Viking brand non-GMO seed variety 44-98 out-produced 29 other corn varieties, including 22 GM varieties, in an Iowa field trial. The Viking non-GMO corn produced yields of 262.1 bushels per acre, three bushels per acre more than a GM variety from Golden Harvest. Another Viking non-GMO corn seed, 51-04, finished second in another field trial in Southeast Minnesota, topping 24 other GM varieties.
Albert Lea Seeds’ president Mac Ehrhardt says there is “no question” that non-GMO corn seed can produce yields that are equal to or even better than GM seed.
“There is a misperception that somehow magically GMO corn yields more and it does not,” he says. “All the (GMO) corn traits in the marketplace protect yield, they don’t enhance it.”
A non-GMO corn seed variety from Indiana-based Spectrum Non-GMO outperformed 24 other corn varieties, including many GM seeds, at a University of Tennessee trial held in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2019. Spectrum’s 6416 non-GMO corn seed produced yields of 281 bushels per acre, more than any other variety.
Spectrum also finished first in three of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) seven non-GMO corn seed trials. In fact, average yields of the UK non-GMO corn trials
topped average yields of three GMO corn trials. The non-GMO trials yielded an average of 209.5 bushels per acre (bu/a), while the average yields of the three GMO “trait” were 203.7 bu/a, 200.5 bu/a, and 207.1 bu/a respectively.
“I believe the data speaks for itself. Non-GMO hybrids are able to deliver the same results as GMO hybrids,” says Josh Richey, CEO of Spectrum Non-GMO.
Similar corn seed trials have also found that non-GMO corn produces as well as GM corn. In the 2019 Ontario Hybrid Corn Performance trials, three non-GMO corn hybrids from DeDell Seeds produced competitive yields with 23 GM varieties. A 2017 crop performance test by Iowa State University found that two non-GMO corn varieties from Prairie Hybrids finished first and fourth in a test of 19 early season corn varieties, which included 11 GM varieties. A 2016 Ohio Corn Performance Test conducted by Ohio State University found that non-GMO corn hybrids produced yields that are competitive with many GM corn hybrids in the absence of corn borer and rootworm pressure. University of Vermont 2015 field trials of short- and long-season corn found that non-GMO seed varieties performed as well as or even better than some genetically modified varieties.
Yield “hit” with GMO traits
Published research confirms that yields of non-GMO seeds are equal to or greater than those of GM seed. A study published in 2014 found that average yields of GM corn in the U.S. from 1986 to 2011 were slightly lower than corn yields over the same period in Western Europe, where GM crops aren’t grown. A 2014 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, found that GM seeds have not proven to increase yields; in fact the report stated, “Yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant (GM) seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties.”
The yield lag of GM seeds makes sense, according to Nate Belcher, crop consultant and regenerative agriculture specialist at Hybrid 85 non-GMO corn seed company.
“Many times you take yield hit when you insert (GMO) traits,” he says. “If everything else is kept equal, say weed control and pest management, a lot of times the conventional version of that hybrid will beat out the traited one from a yield standpoint. We’ve had growers experience that themselves.”
Bill Niebur, chief operating officer at Hi Fidelity Genetics and a corn breeder at Pioneer for many years, echoes Ehrhardt’s point about GMO traits protecting yields.
“What we know with the yields is that incorporating transgenic traits into corn germplasm did not improve the performance of the germplasm in the absence of severe insect, weed, or other pressures that the traits were designed to address. Traits are valuable, but they don’t increase the intrinsic yield levels of the product. There have been several studies at the University of Wisconsin and other institutions that have borne that out,” he says.
Richey compares GMO traits to antibiotics. “It would be like taking an antibiotic every day in case you get a cold later in the day. You don’t take antibiotics when you aren’t sick.”
Even if GM seed produces better yields than non-GMO, the cost savings for non-GMO seed, which can cost as much as 50% less than GM seed, makes up for any yield loss.
“It all comes down to net return per acre, and if it makes sense in the situations where it wasn’t the yield beater, sometimes economically, it still made sense,” Belcher says.