Non-GMO corn has its place

Rich Keller, 01/11/2013


There is no definitive market share shift from GMO corn and soybeans, but the convergence of several factors appears to be pushing some growers away from paying the higher price for traited seed when conventional seed might perform just as well.

There has been an increase in non-GMO varieties entered in the Iowa Crop Performance tests, noted Jim Rouse, director of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association. The big increase in non-GMO varieties is with seed corn. In the corn hybrid test for 2012, 56 out of 259 were conventional hybrids; that is 21 percent. As for soybeans, 23 varieties were conventional out of 226 varieties tested, or 10 percent.

“Some companies mostly enter GMO hybrids, but they have now started to enter one or two conventional hybrids, too, that they might not have entered in the past,” said Rouse. “It is about the same percentage as last year, but it is higher than in 2010. And before that, there didn’t seem to be as much interest in conventional hybrids.”

NON-GMO SEED SPECIALISTS

Spectrum Premium Genetics from Linden, Ind., is an example of a new company entering non-GMO hybrids in the tests. Company President Scott Odle started the company to provide alternatives to GMO hybrids about three years ago. The estimate is that non-GMO corn is about 9 percent of the seed corn market, and Odle predicts that it might be 20 percent in five years.

He suggests that farmers are realizing that traits protect yield and genetics are the underlying yield determinant. And he can show that non-trait hybrids are testing quite well against traited seed.

“If we had used GMOs as a tool instead of the rule, we wouldn’t have a lot of the issues that we have today,” he said. Odle refers to insects showing resistance to Bt seed traits, weeds showing resistance to glyphosate herbicides and stacked trait hybrids that haven’t performed as promised in some cases.

The impetus for Odle to start a seed company was his worry that in five to seven years, without smaller seed companies focusing on non-GMO seed, these alternatives wouldn’t exist, but he is now optimistic about the future.

“I know that we don’t need to plant GMO hybrids every year,” he said. In his own farming operation, he isn’t completely averse to using a Bt-trait seed or Roundup Ready hybrid occasionally if a specific situation calls for it.

DOES VALUE EXIST?

Jon Lundgren, Ph.D., entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in South Dakota, said, in general, there seems to be a “developing market for non-GM corn.”

“Bt technology has been so effective for so long that we have eliminated the target pests in a lot of the growing regions. The European corn borer has been driven to such low populations that farmers are starting to wonder where did it go, and do I need to plant Bt corn every year. If the pest isn’t there, then the economic value isn’t there for Bt hybrids.”

The non-Bt option is possible in less prime areas for corn rootworm infestations, too. And the “entomological community” is thinking that going back to a 20 percent refuge of non-GMO corn is a logical move, Lundgren noted.

“In the areas where there is less corn in the rotation and there is no corn on corn, we are selling more conventional hybrids,” said Brad Taylor, vice president of Taylor Seed Farms at White Cloud, Kan. “In Kansas, there is a lot of area where the farmers rotate corn, soybean and wheat—not just corn and beans. The areas where conventional corn is being planted is where there isn’t rootworm, and there hasn’t been corn borer pressure for some time.”

A farmer can save around $50 per acre buying conventional seed compared to traited seed. If a farmer was going to use herbicides other than Roundup or a soil insecticide for secondary pests instead of solely relying on the Bt traits for insect control, then today a conventional hybrid has appeal.




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