Farmer: Non-GMO is not a niche market

Published: February 8, 2021

Category: Non-GMO News

Farmers discuss the rewards and challenges of growing non-GMO soybeans and corn

By Ken Roseboro

The non-GMO market is not a niche; it’s a billion-dollar market. That was one of the main takeaways from a farmer’s panel session at the Organic & Non-GMO Forum last November.

The panel included three non-GMO farmers: John Heinecke of Heinecke Ag Ventures in Paris, Missouri; Keith Schrader of Wheeling Grain Partnership in Northfield, Minnesota; and Nancy Kavazanjian, co-owner of Hammer-Kavazanjian Farms in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Eric Wenberg, executive director of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, moderated the panel.

The farmers discussed a range of topics related to growing non-GMO soybeans including purity issues, premiums, seed varieties, weed control, and markets.

Non-GMO is “a big deal”

“I need people to stop seeing non-GMO as a niche market,” Heinecke said. “It’s a big deal. I have a list of people wanting to buy non-GMO soybeans; they can’t find enough. Exporters don’t have enough farmers.”

Wenberg agreed. “The non-GMO corn and soybean market is no niche,” he said. “The value of identity preserved soybeans was $1.7 billion. That’s not niche.”

The market for products that are Non-GMO Project Verified is estimated at $34 billion with some 60,000 products verified as non-GMO.

One challenge, according to the non-GMO producers, is having access to good non-GMO seed varieties.

“We don’t get the good genetics here in Wisconsin. We need better non-GMO (seed) varieties,” Kavazanjian said.

Further, she said that public non-GMO breeding programs are needed but there are only a few of those programs, and they are costly.

Heinecke said there is a lack of seed varieties particularly for food-grade soybeans. “We must get (plant breeders) to work on these varieties.”

But Schrader is more optimistic. “The seed companies have been breeding more non-GMO. It’s a tougher job, but they are stepping up to the plate.”

A big advantage to planting non-GMO seed is the lower cost, which can be one-half the cost of GMO seed.

Kavazanjian said she saves $50 per acre growing non-GMO corn seed. “Even if we have a little less yield, it’s still a win-win.”

Ensuring non-GMO purity and earning premiums

Non-GMO purity was another topic of discussion. On-farm storage is critical to segregate non-GMO soybeans and corn from GMO crops and to ensure non-GMO purity. Schrader preserves the non-GMO identity of his soybeans in small bins, some of which are located on farms where he rents land. He sells non-GMO soybeans to three food companies that will take samples at harvest and test them for genetically modified material.

Schrader said: “Corn is tougher for (non-GMO) purity because of cross- pollination.”

He said his non-GMO corn production needs a 200-foot separation from neighboring GMO corn fields. His non-GMO corn must meet a 95% non-GMO purity threshold.

Kavazanjian has sold her non-GMO soybeans to the same buyer for the past 30 years. The buyer tests the soybeans at harvest, and they must meet a 5% GMO threshold, which is the threshold for GMO labeling in Japan.

Heinecke tests his non-GMO crops using an EnviroLogix GMO test kit.

“We test truckloads to meet purity standards,” he said.

His soybeans must meet a 99.5% non-GMO purity threshold.

The main benefit of growing non-GMO soybeans and corn is the premium price that farmers earn. These can range from $.65 per bushel to $1.15 per bushel above commodity prices for feed-grade soybeans, according to Wenberg. Meanwhile, food-grade soybeans such as natto varieties can earn premiums as high as $3.20 per bushel.

Schrader said that raising non-GMO crops has helped keep his farm profitable. Kavazanjian said the premium she earns for non-GMO soybeans “has really helped us over the years.” She also earns premium prices selling non-GMO corn to dairies and other customers.

For Kavazanjian success in producing and selling non-GMO crops is based on good relationships with customers. “The relationship is very important,” she said.

Organic & Non-GMO Insights February 2021

About the Author

Ken Roseboro

Ken Roseboro has been called “the nation’s reporter on all issues surrounding genetically modified foods” by Acres USA magazine. He has written extensively about GM foods and the non-GMO trend since 1999. Ken’s articles have appeared in leading food and agriculture publications and websites such as Civil Eats, Harvest Public Media, Prepared Foods, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Food Processing, as well as The Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Mother Earth News, and others. He is a contributing editor to EcoWatch. Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook both published by Basic Health Publications. He has spoken at many conferences including Natural Products Expo West, Acres USA Conference, The Organic Farming Conference, National Heirloom Seed Expo, and others. Ken is a member of the design team of the Non-GMO Supply Working Group and a founding member of the board of directors of the Iowa Organic Association. Ken also serves on the board of directors of Soil Technologies Corporation. He appears in the award-winning documentary film, GMO OMG. In 2006, Ken received an Award of Merit from Seed Savers Exchange for his efforts to preserve genetic diversity through his publications.