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Identity preserved corn markets create pollen drift issue

(Monday, Nov. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Market to Market, Iowa Public Television, 10/31/03: The USDA is setting up a new enforcement unit to ensure biotech companies are properly managing field trials of genetically engineered crops. The unit has a staff of 33, which will inspect fields of pharmaceutical and industrial crops seven times over a two-year period. The goal? To ensure there's no contamination of conventional crops.

In today's world of identity preserved markets, there are crops with genetically modified traits, those containing no GMOs, and then there's organic. Many of the varieties have specific customers with specific uses in mind. And the last thing farmers want is pollen drifting to fields where it's not wanted. As producer Nancy Crowfoot reports, the results can be both frustrating and costly.

Laura Krouse, farmer, Mt. Vernon, Iowa: "This is the 100th year this corn has been grown on this farm, 1903.The corn was first brought to this farm by the grandpa of the Neil family. He went to the World Corn Show in Chicago in 1903. He bought some kernels from the world champion ear of corn and brought them home and he started this variety and it's been grown here continuously ever since."

Laura Krouse, is an agronomist who teaches biology at a private college in east central Iowa. In 1988, she bought this 72 acre farm & and inherited the corn that came with it. She raises it for seed stock under organic farming guidelines and sells it to several customers, many of whom operate organic dairies.

Two years ago, at the request of one of her customers, she sent to a seed lab, samples of her 2001 crop to check for the presence of something she hoped not to find -- genetically modified organisms. She said the crop tested positive for the presence of a Bt gene & a gene inserted into a corn plant to make it resistant to damage by certain pests.

Laura Krouse, farmer, Mt. Vernon, Iowa: "I told my customers what had happened and I lost about half of my business that year because the certified, basically half of my customers are certified organic and those people who were certified organic couldn't buy seed from me then."

Krouse's story is not unique. A national survey by the Organic Farm Research Foundation released last May showed 17% of those responding paid to have their organic crop tested for the presence of GMOs. Of that, 11% said their crop tested positive.

Some said they believe they could've received contaminated seeds. Others -- like Krouse -- blame pollen drift from neighboring fields.

Pollen drift is a valid concern, says a professor in plant breeding at Iowa State University.

Kendall Lamkey, Professor in plant breeding, Iowa State University: "I think corn problems seem almost hopeless to me. I just don't know how they're going to keep out the GMO pollen without getting rid of GM crops. It's a problem for more than just the organic people. Anybody who wants to be non-GMO, whether they're organic or not has a problem."

This is not welcome news to those already raising corn for identity preserved markets. For example, there are more than 15,200 acres of certified organic corn in Iowa ... the second highest acreage in the nation, behind Minnesota.

As more and more identity preserved corn markets become available ... whether for the food, feed or seed business ... or for the emerging agricultural pharmaceutical industry ... farming neighbors may just have to keep closer tabs on what each other is doing. And pay attention to what's blowin' in the wind.

Kendall Lamkey, Professor in plant breeding, Iowa State University: "The longest report I've heard that's been verifiable has been a half-a-mile but the simulation studies I've seen done, I've seen a couple of the now, that suggest that individual pollen grains in corn could still be viable and probably fly farther than that."

That's raised two concerns for non-GMO farmers: The potential loss of a specialty crop due to pollen drift, and the need to ensure Midwest farmers can be a part of the emerging identity preserved corn market.

In response, the Iowa and Illinois Corn Growers Associations have established a new company to educate, train and certify farmers who want to grow identity preserved corn. The director of the two-year old company says the goal is to help both growers and the buyers of the crop.

Chet Boruff, Novecta: "What we've provided for them has been quality assurance training that would lay out and identify the particular protocol throughout the growing season that they should follow. Frequently, growers have been doing these types of processes for a long time but there hasn't been a requirement to document what they do. And so what we're trying to do is help them get into these new markets and to provide the quality assurance training they need to do that."

But to be competitive in the identity preserved markets means pollen contamination issues must be worked out. If not, the fear is Iowa and other Corn Belt states could lose the opportunity to grow higher value crops.

Chet Boruff, Novecta: "We have a fear that may be occurring and some of the market potentially, and the production, could go elsewhere. That may be the end result. But if there's any way to responsibly grow it here in Iowa or Illinois or in the Corn Belt, we'd hope to keep that profit potential here."

Laura Krouse, farmer, Mt. Vernon, Iowa: "I hope the Corn Growers can make this work."

For her part, Laura Krouse has taken steps to isolate her cornfield as far from the road and her neighbors as she can ...about an 1/8th of a mile. She plants a few weeks later than her neighbors, so her corn tassles, hopefully, after the conventional crops are through the pollination phase. And last year, her crop tested negative for gmos.

She hopes her precautions will be enough to keep her business viable ... as she does not plan to give it up.

Laura Krouse, farmer, Mt. Vernon, Iowa: "In terms of the state of Iowa, it's a little mosquito bite of a business. But for me it's a pretty important component of the profitability of this farm."

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.