Seed Choice Key for Market Access

What’s in the seed bag beyond variety? Everything, at least for a non-GMO producer. With a 0.9% GMO-presence threshold separating who gets a ticket to the premium markets of Europe, Japan and the U.S., and who has to dump into the common trough, a wrong choice at seed purchase is akin to smashing one’s ankles with a hammer. 

The road to non-GMO crops is paved with opportunity and premiums. Yet growers carry an inherent burden of risk tightly wound around GMO presence, with pesticide residue becoming increasingly important, especially for organic producers. Best laid plans aside, the potentially profitable market doors can slam fast on non-GMO and organic growers.

In the initial period of non-GMO expansion, seed banks relied upon by seed companies didn’t contain much GMO presence, yet cross-pollination issues were developing along field edges that tapered to non-discoverable GMO levels in field middles. As GMO presence crept into breeding banks, many field middles registered 1% to 2.5% GMO, despite assurances that producers were buying pure non-GMO seed.

Today’s non-GMO producer must register below a 0.9% GMO presence or face a blanket rejection from top foreign and domestic markets. The key for non-GMO growers, according to Illinois grain dealer Lynn Clarkson, is the background GMO level in non-GMO seed. “It’s absolutely got to start low,” he says. “Buy seed with a 0.1% GMO level and cut 160 acres and watch it rise to 0.4% or 0.5%. No problem, almost the entire global market will still accept it.”


Conversely, starting with a high GMO presence puts a crop at a much higher likelihood of cross-pollination issues. “If a grower begins purchase at 0.1% he’s going to be safe; starting at 0.5% he might be safe; but start at any higher rate he’s probably not safe,” Clarkson says.

As the founder and owner of Clarkson Grain in Cerro Gordo, Ill., Clarkson has a finger on the pulse of non-GMO and organic markets. Only a few seed companies truly focus on a low level of GMO presence, according to Clarkson, such as Albert Lea Seed, which is establishing a guarantee of 0.1%. 

If non-GMO seed falls in a spectrum from 0.1% to 0.6% and well beyond, how does a grower know what’s inside the bag? Grower-initiated testing is an expensive proposition.

A grower needs to ask for a written guarantee of no more than “x” percent of GMO presence in seed. If a seed company won’t reveal the GMO level prior to purchase, the grower might lose market access the moment seed is bought, no matter what goes on in the field, according to Clarkson. 

“A farmer needs to go to the seed company and say, ‘Here’s the market I’m aiming at, and if I’m above 0.9% on delivery, I’m getting rejected by my buyer. How can you help me and what is your guarantee?’”

While serving on USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture for four years, Clarkson tallied a rough estimate of cross-pollination costs to U.S. growers: $40 million. 

Overall, he says pesticide residue issues for key premium markets might eclipse grower concerns about cross-pollination, particularly related to the organic market. 

“Some organic buyers want zero percent pesticide residues and that’s a bigger problem than cross-pollination,” Clarkson explains. “If you’ve got a seed supply at 0.1%, then cross-pollination tends to fade away as a grower worry, and pesticide residues become the bigger issue,” he says.

Synthetic pesticide residues are a steadily increasing issue for organic growers in tandem with a dynamic market. Burgeoning opportunity and demand from buyers for crops raised without synthetic pesticides is bringing the issue to the fore. 

Jim Riddle grows organic crops at Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minn. He chairs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Task Force and serves on the steering committee of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA). In 2016, OFA sent a survey to all certified organic growers across the U.S. Top survey concerns from organic growers were pesticide drift and cross-pollination, according to Riddle.

“We’re dealing with more complaints than ever over pesticide drift issues,” he explains. “With the quantities of herbicides sprayed to control resistant weeds, organic growers are seeing the effects in their fields with increasing residue levels.”

Riddle wrote a pamphlet for the University of Minnesota in 2012, titled “GMO Contamination Prevention: What Does It Take?”, which lays out a series of best management practices for non-GMO and GMO producers. Riddle’s publication is filled with recommendations: non-GMO seed purity, planting delays, buffer zones, general responsibility, neighbor notification, sign posting, input traceability, harvest practices, storage, transport and documentation.

However, Riddle emphasizes an additional concern not included in the publication. “The farmer who plants GMO seed doesn’t own the DNA because the company retains ownership of transgenic technology. Who is responsible when the trait escapes and causes loss to non-GMO farmers?” Riddle asks.

“Non-GMO farmers have a heavy burden with cross-pollination and pesticide drift, but farmers on both sides of fence have responsibility, along with the patent holders,” Riddle says. “These issues shouldn’t have to pit neighbor against neighbor.” 

Shoot-Out Down Under

Questions about cross-pollination responsibility led to a bitter farmer-versus-farmer dispute in Australia that captured global headlines. For 45 years, Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter played together as children, worked together as teens and farmed beside each other as adults in the expansive, rural state of Western Australia.

Marsh began steering his farm away from conventional agriculture in 2004, and later gained certified organic status. In 2010, Baxter set up buffer zones and planted 210 of his acres with Roundup Ready canola. He notified Marsh about the GMO planting. Marsh asked Baxter to sign a letter (which Baxter refused to sign) acknowledging legal action would follow if cross-pollination occurred. That set off a long-running feud that made headlines around the world.

The over-the-fence dispute festered until fall harvest of 2010, when Marsh found canola trash beside his ground and used a DNA strip tester to confirm GMO presence. According to Marsh, he later found traces of GM canola on roughly two-thirds of his acreage. 

With his zero-tolerance organic certification dead and production contracts nullified, Marsh sought compensation in court. Marsh could either sue Monsanto as maker of the GM canola, or Baxter as producer of the GM canola; he chose Baxter.

Marsh lost the landmark case when the state supreme court ruled against him in 2014. Australia’s High Court rejected Marsh’s appeal.


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