By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services
Ohio is one of the leading states to plant non-GMO crops. GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. About 92% of American corn and 94% of soybeans in 2018 were genetically modified for weed, insect, or drought tolerance. Japan and many European countries demand GMO-free crops, so farmers can earn premiums for growing those crops. Premiums vary by company, crop variety, and purity, but premiums can be around $ 0.25 a bushel of corn and $ 1-2 a bushel for soybeans.
In a GMO crop, scientists identify a gene in an organism, then copy and insert that gene into a crop like corn, soybeans, potatoes, etc. GM crops are generally resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup with the CP4 gene) or glufosinate (Liberty Link, PAT gene). Resistance to GMO corn insecticides is achieved using up to seven genes from the Thuringiensis bacteria which produces proteins toxic to certain insect pests such as corn rootworm, European corn borer, corn earworms, fall armyworm and several other pests. The common selling points of GMO corn are that it contains fewer weeds and pests. The downsides are that it contributes to weed resistance if these herbicides are overused and people who consume these crops may have allergy issues and possible future resistance to antibiotics (not yet proven).
I’m definitely science neutral about GMO technology versus non-GMO technology. As a Type I diabetic, I take Humulin insulin made from human cells inserted into bacteria that I use daily to survive. Diabetics can use bovine and bovine insulin but I prefer human insulin (even if it comes from bacteria)! GMO crops are also modified in Africa to have higher nutritional value, like 6 times higher vitamin C, 2 times higher foliage and 169X beta-carotene.
On the other hand, seeds from GM crops are expensive to plant and exhibit resistance to weeds, allergies and possible resistance to antibiotics; there may simply be no right or wrong answer.
Many large conventional farmers find it easier to plant GM crops. It helps solve many weed and insect problems and generally makes management easier. However, many farmers grow non-GMO crops, especially if they have glyphosate resistant weeds and are striving for higher premiums. Soil health and organic farmers also love non-GMO crops because they want to work with nature to naturally control pests. Here are the general guidelines for growing non-GMO crops.
A key element is to avoid contaminated seeds or pollen from GMO crops planted nearby. Most non-GMO farmers plant early maturing corn and soybeans to avoid pollen contamination. In addition, some farmers may plant both GMO and non-GMO crops. In this case, always plant your non-GMO crops first and select early maturing varieties. This way you minimize the cleaning of the planter, sprayer and harvester, you should have less pollen contamination, and since non-GMO crops should mature faster, these are the first harvests. When spraying, remember the same rule applies, spray all non-GMO fields first, then GMO fields second, as all equipment (planters, grain tenderers, sprayers, trucks , grain carts, harvesters) must be cleaned to avoid contamination. Farmers now have plenty of mobile phone apps that can really help track seeds, planting dates and rates, chemical sprays used, and harvest. Depending on the company and where the crop will be exported, the highest premiums usually go to the highest purity seeds as well as certain crop varieties.
Planting non-GMO crops requires managing several other considerations. Watch the prevailing wind direction to avoid pollen contamination from nearby fields. Smaller fields are easier to contaminate than larger fields, so border lines may need to be larger. Farmers are often advised to plant and harvest the outer rows of non-GMO crops first, and then sell the harvested seeds as GMO seeds. Most contaminations occur on the outer rows and this process helps to clean the equipment. Soybeans are easier to contaminate than corn because soybeans have less grain volume than corn. Some companies use a genetic corn pollen blocker (Gat gene) that only accepts pollen from the host plant. Other problems include removing volunteer plants, minimizing planter errors, and problems caused by flooding (germination of GMO seeds) or drought (which can slow pollination of the non-GMO host crop). OSU Retired Maize Extension Specialist Dr Peter Thomison has an excellent fact sheet “Managing Maize Pollen Drift to Avoid Contamination of Non-GMO Maize.” Spring is a busy time for all farmers trying to plant crops. Be careful!