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Silver Bullet to Stop Corn Contamination?

(17 October - Cropchoice News) -- Believe it or not, there is more news about biotech corn than the Starlink scandal. In fact, while the Starlink story keeps going from bad to worse, researchers at the University of Wisconsin say they might even have discovered a way to stop corn from crosspollinating at all. The new corn will not cross with other types, making it impossible for nearby GMO genes to leak into non-GMO fields. If it works, the technique could protect producers from a huge worry and economic risk; but at what price?

The Wisconsin researchers cross-pollination stopper works through a group of genes - or gene complex. The source of the gene complex is a grassy wild relative of corn, teosinte, which grows as a weed in Mexican cornfields and is thought to be the original plant from which ancient farmers bred modern corn. Despite being a corn relative, teosinte doesn't cross with its cousins in the field. Zooming in on the ability and by identifying the gene complex responsible for this genetic stability, researchers hope to create corn varieties that are similarly stable. Transferring teosinte's genes into corn, researchers believe that they can create economically-viable corn varieties for commercial planting as early as 2003.

And, they're doing it by traditional breeding which, according to Wisconsin, means that the new contamination-proof varieties could be perfect for non-GMO and organic markets. Wisconsin's lead resercher on the project, Jerry Kermicle, says "Governing the flow of genes between populations is what's at stake."

The University isn't shy about promoting the potential economic benefits of the new corn. According to a press release, the genes mean "farmers will have access to technology that can ensure the genetic integrity of their corn crop, making it easier to export..." The University isn't giving it away either - they're patenting the genes and process and are trying to sell it to seed companies.

While the technology souds promising, in the end it probably won't be a simple issue for producers:

First, Wisconsin's patents and the complex licensing process with seed companies probably mean that producers will be asked to pay more for pollination-protected varieties. Is it right for non-GMO and organic producers to be asked to pay to protect themselves from GMOs ... or should it be the other way around? How did the GMO contamination problem start to begin with?

Second, the patent and the technology itself may get in the way of on-farm breeding and use of open pollinated varieties. Producers planting hybrids are probably already buying seed every year; but many producers use open pollinated varieties and replant. The technology could interfere with open pollination, either physically or through the patents - usually, as is the case with grower agreements, owners of patented genes try to prohibit producers from replanting harvested seed.

How Wisconsin, and the companies it licenses the technology to, handle these issues may determine whether farmers see the technology as friend or foe.

SOURCE: University of Wisconsin