OFRF Funded Research Produces GMO-Resistant Corn

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Corn is an incredibly productive crop that works well in organic crop rotations in many parts of North America. An influx of transgenic (GMO) corn varieties since the mid-1990s, like RoundUp Ready corn, have made it increasingly difficult to grow uncontaminated organic corn—or find corn seed that is free of transgene contamination.

The difficulty stems from the fact that corn is a species that releases millions of pollen grains from its male flowers to land on the hundreds of silks of the female flowers or ears. Wind carries pollen long distances, which makes it possible for GMO pollen to contaminate organic corn on neighboring farms and negatively impact organic corn farmers.

In their 2015 National Organic Farmer Survey, OFRF asked farmers about their experience with GMO contamination. Nationally, 2.2% of farmers reported having a product shipment rejected due to GMO contamination (N=881). However, the rate of contamination is not uniform throughout the US. In the North Central region, 6% of respondents reported having a product shipment rejected due to GMO contamination.

In their survey responses, farmers expressed great concern over pollen drift, the ability to source uncontaminated seed, and the financial impacts associated with contamination and implementing avoidance practices. One farmer stated, “All of my 2014 corn crop was rejected for the food grade market due to contamination that came in from most likely my neighbor's corn field. I always plant my corn much later (than neighboring conventional farmers) due to contamination having caused a huge negative impact for me.”

In response to this growing problem for organic farmers, OFRF provided funding for a breeding project led by Frank Kutka of the Seed We Need Project in Dickinson, North Dakota. The purpose of the project is to reduce transgenic contamination of organic corn by maintaining the integrity of organic corn seed.

To do this, Kutka crossed sources of gametophytic incompatibility—a trait that strongly interferes with successful fertilization by pollen from plants without the trait—with a number of corn populations and inbred lines. Along with other practices designed to maintain genetic purity of corn varieties, these traits should provide additional insurance against transgene contamination once the seed is planted. These improved lines and populations will readily cross with most field corn in the U.S.A.

Although it is not foolproof, this organic seed breeding greatly reduces outcropping and protects organic corn from GMO contamination. In addition to making the new corn varieties available, Kutka is providing public outreach through videos, presentations, and interviews highlighting the traits and importance of organic corn and organic plant breeding.

Read Kutka's OFRF research report here.

For more information:

2011 video about the trait

2015 presentation to MOSES Organic Farming Conference

2015 presentation to FARRMS beginning farmers group in North Dakota

Years one to three of this research were funded in partnership with Clif Bar Family Foundation under the Seed Matters Funding Initiative.