Breeding “Organic Ready” Corn

Karen Adler's picture

Amidst the controversy over transgene (GMO) contamination—a growing concern for organic farmers, researchers, consumers, and advocates—plant breeder Frank Kutka has been working to develop an “organic ready” line of corn that will maintain its non-GMO integrity. Corn is one of the top three genetically modified crops, alongside cotton and soy. In 2014, 89 percent of the corn acreage in the U.S. is planted in herbicide-tolerant transgenic corn.
Kutka has just started his fourth year of an OFRF/Seed Matters-funded research project, Developing “Organic-Ready” Maize Populations with Gametophytic Incompatibility. Corn is wind pollinated and readily crosses with other varieties. However, this breeding work uses naturally occurring genes derived from popcorns and the ancient grain teosinte that create a screen against crossing with transgenic, or genetically modified (GMO) corn. 


Kutka coined the term “Organic Ready” to describe this corn that can better maintain its organic integrity with these genes. Corn is an important crop that grows well across the country and is very productive and profitable. “It is a strong crop, excellent in crop rotations, where it is good to have a tall competitive plant,” Kutka says. “But it is absolutely susceptible to outcrossing with transgenic corn, due to the nature of its reproductive process, and the fact that pollen can travel for miles and land in any field.”
GMOs are prohibited in organic production under the USDA National Organic Program, making organic the original and best GMO-free label, but there are no regulations in place to protect farmers against accidental contamination from the pollen of transgenic corn. This is a widespread problem for every organic corn farmer who has GMO corn growing within a few miles, which includes farmers across the Midwest and most other places corn is grown. As organic farmers have learned, they can have the right seed, do everything right, and still have contamination of their crop. A recent survey of organic farmers from 17 states, predominantly in the Midwest, shows 67 percent planned to delay planting corn this year so their crops pollinate later than their neighbors’ GMO corn (one method farmers are using to prevent contamination), at an average cost of $16,000. This is not sustainable. It is important for farmers economically and agriculturally to have the right tools to maintain organic integrity for their customers, and this exciting research promises to provide a powerful addition to the toolbox. 
Kutka points out that the idea of using these genes to prevent unwanted cross-pollination is not new, and there are others exploring these applications. The traits have been used for years to grow popcorn in the corn belt. “It’s an extremely obvious idea,” he says. “I read Mutants of Maize, and saw a description of this trait. I thought, ‘It works for popcorn, and could be handy to keep transgenes out of organic.’” 
Breeding work takes time, but early releases of open pollinated (OP) “Organic Ready” corn could be available later this year, with work continuing on back crossing and release of more populations and lines in 2015 and beyond. Seed of the resulting lines and populations will be released to the public along with short publications in the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter in order to prevent their being patented, a situation that has already occurred, and which Kutka opposes. He says, “These seed releases are to encourage others to work with this trait and for organic farmers to grow as they wish.”  
We’ll keep you posted!
About the researcher:
Frank Kutka has a Ph.D. in plant breeding and has been working on this project since 2001. In addition to this project, he serves as a coordinator for the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society Farm Breeding Club and has coordinated the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program in North and South Dakota. He works with organic corn breeders across the country to gain advice and knowledge, citing Walter Goldstein at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and Major Goodman at North Carolina State University, among others.
Want to learn more? Watch Frank Kutka explain the project, and read these articles:
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