Experts dispute patent on gene-blocking corn

A promising technology to reduce GMO contamination in organic and non-GM corn is at the center of a dispute over whether or not it should be patented.

Acreage of genetically modified corn is increasing in the United States, which makes cross-pollination—and contamination—of non-GMO and organic corn more likely. “You can have perfect seed, do everything right, and still have contamination,” says Ron Frieders, an Illinois farmer who grows non-GM corn and soybeans.

Operators at a river terminal in Ottawa, Illinois, told Frieders that about 10%-20% of the non-GM corn they sample tests positive for GMOs.

“It will be harder and harder to keep GMOs out of the organic industry,” says Mitch Jensen, genetic development manager, MBS Genetics, which provides non-GM corn foundation seed. “We have timber surrounding our non-GM corn fields, but we still get some contamination.”

At least one major corn processor has given up trying to procure non-GM corn. Lynn Clarkson, president, Clarkson Grain, says Frito-Lay, which previously had a non-GMO commitment, accepted GM yellow corn for the first time in 2007.

In addition to contamination problems, non-GM corn varieties are getting harder to find with 85% to 90% of the corn seed germplasm controlled by five companies.

Fortunately, there is a promising technology that may significantly reduce GMO contamination in corn. Unfortunately, there is a controversy in the organic industry over whether the technology should be patented or not.

Tom Hoegemeyer, chief technology officer, Hoegemeyer Hybrids, developed a system that blocks incoming pollen from other corn to prevent cross pollination. Hoegemeyer bred a pollen-blocking trait from popcorn called gametophyte factor (GaS) into conventional corn hybrids.

“Essentially, PuraMaize allows the production of GMO and non-GMO cornfields side by side, ensuring that corn produced for specialty starches, cornflakes, tacos and other corn-based products will remain pure and free from GMO contamination,” says Hoegemeyer.

Initial tests on PuraMaize have been positive. The tests involved using both purple-seeded corn and commercial GMO corn hybrids and PuraMaize effectively blocked pollination from external pollen sources other than its own. Without isolating the test fields, the contamination was either eliminated or reduced to an extremely low level that falls below any current regulatory threshold for non-GMO classification, Hoegemeyer said. 

William Olson, specialty corn product manager, says there is interest from the organic industry for PuraMaize. Organic seed company Blue River Hybrids is testing PuraMaize with organic corn. Blue River president Maury Johnson projects that PuraMaize organic corn hybrids will be available in about three years.

Hoegemeyer also plans to breed PuraMaize white corn varieties because GM white corn will be grown this year.

Patent dispute
Hoegemeyer patented the GaS trait, which has angered several organic corn breeders and a prominent organic farmer.

Margaret Smith at Cornell University and her associate, Frank Kutka, a sustainable agriculture specialist at North Dakota State University, bred corn with GaS to block GM corn pollen (See The Non-GMO Report, July 2005).

“Mr. Hoegemeyer’s patent makes it very difficult for anyone to sell normal yellow corn with this trait in it without paying him some money first, regardless of the merits of his patent claims,” Kutka says.

Walter Goldstein, research program director, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, has worked with the GaS trait in his corn-breeding research and also objects to the patent. “It’s outrageous that Hoegemeyer got this patent because yellow dent corn inbreds containing the trait were available before Hoegemeyer’s time,” he says.

Goldstein points to a paper published in Agronomy Journal in 1955 by Walter Thomas of Iowa State University, describing how GaS was bred in yellow dent corn.

Klaas Martens, an organic farmer and owner of Lakeview Organic Grains, is also angry about the patent. “Hoegemeyer is patenting traits that are in public domain. This is a big problem,” he says.

Martens believes patenting seeds and traits, a standard practice of biotechnology companies, are what the organic industry is fighting against. He calls such patenting “stealing rights to public property.”

Chris Hoegemeyer, vice president, Hoegemeyer Hybrids, defends the patent. “We feel it is non-obvious and novel,” he says. “We were very exhaustive in the material we reviewed and conscientious in speaking with experts in the public and private sectors.”

Olson says the patent aims to protect the technology for non-GMO use. “There are many ways that it could be used if it wasn’t protected. It would be open to anybody,” Olson says. “Our whole intent was to use it for non-GMO production.”

Olson says he welcomes contacts from individuals and companies about PuraMaize. “We will work with them in any way we can,” he says.

Teosinte Crossing Barrier
Goldstein says his associate Linda Pollack, research geneticist with US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, has been working with the GaS trait, as well as another gene-blocking trait, Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB) in developing corn varieties for organic production.

TCB was bred into conventional corn by Jerry Kermicle, a plant geneticist at the University of Wisconsin. Kermicle discovered that teosinte, an ancestor of maize, contains a natural genetic barrier that blocks out foreign genes, thus preventing cross pollination from other plants.

The University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation applied for a patent on TCB, but it was denied.

Goldstein says that while GaS and TCB aren’t a total solution to GMO contamination of organic corn, the traits could help. “Both traits can be highly effective, though there is some leakage,” he says.

Martens says the organic industry needs technologies such as GaS and TCB. “The seed supply is going to be contaminated unless we use these traits,” Martens says. We could take contamination far below where it is today.”

Otherwise, he says, “We will have to fight GMO contamination for the rest of our lives.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report May 2008.