Organic ready” corn aims to prevent GMO contamination

By Ken Roseboro
Published: July 21, 2011

Category: GMO Contamination

Organic Corn Breed Frank Kutka

Corn breeder Frank Kutka

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Frank Kutka and a group of corn breeders are developing organic and non-GMO corn varieties with a naturally occurring trait that can block incoming pollen and prevent GMO contamination

Frank Kutka is on a mission: to help save organic corn from GMO contamination. As acres of genetically modified corn increase—88% of this year’s US corn plantings are GM—it is becoming more difficult for organic and non-GMO farmers to prevent cross pollination—and contamination—from GM corn. Kutka, a plant breeder and coordinator of the Sustainable Ag Research and Education (SARE) program at North Dakota State University, recently received an $11,500 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to develop what he calls “organic ready” corn.

Research on gene blocking traits

Kutka’s research focuses on a naturally occurring trait found in corn that makes it difficult for GM pollen to enter the corn silks thus preventing cross pollination. The trait is known as gametophytic incompatibility or GA1S and is not a new discovery, according to Kutka. “The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in popcorn in the 1950s and then in white corn varieties in the 1970s.”

Corn is pollinated when pollen grains come into contact with the silk and develop into pollen tubes. Plants containing the GA1S trait stifle pollen from corn not carrying the trait, thus preventing cross pollination.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it greatly reduces the risk of out-crossing,” says Kukta, who must work on the project in his spare time because of his full-time duties as SARE coordinator.

There are three pollen-blocking traits—GA1S, GA2S, and Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB). Kutka says GA2S is a recent discovery by Jerry Kermicle, a plant geneticist at the University of Wisconsin who also discovered the TCB trait. Both GA2S and TCB are found in teosinte, an ancestor of maize.

Have something that farmers can use”

Kutka and several fellow corn breeders: Margaret Smith at Cornell University, Walter Goldstein, Major Goodman and Chris Reberg-Horton at North Carolina State University, and Paul Scott and Jode Edwards at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, are all working with the traits, aiming to develop pollen-blocking corn varieties for organic and non-GMO farmers.

The corn breeders aim to develop corn varieties that can be grown from North Dakota to North Carolina. “Wherever organic corn grows, hopefully we will have something that farmers can use,” Kutka says.

He says varieties with the GA1S trait could be available in 2-3 years while those with the GA2S trait will be available in five years.

Kutka calls the new corn varieties “organic ready” as a play on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM crops.

Patent issues

The project is complicated by patents on both the GA1S and TCB traits. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns a patent on TCB. Tom Hogemeyer, a corn breeder at Hogemeyer Hybrids in Hooper, Nebraska, patented the GA1S trait in 2005 and introduced a program called “PuraMaize” to license the trait to corn seed companies.

Kutka and other public corn breeders have opposed the patent because the trait has been used for decades.

Major Goodman believes Hogemeyer may have patented the trait to prevent Monsanto from doing so. “If Monsanto held the patent it would be a much more serious situation for people trying to use GA1S,” he says.

Goodman and Maury Johnson, president of Blue River Hybrids, both say that Tom Hogemeyer is flexible. “I think Tom is willing to work with people,” Johnson says.

The patent is also limited to the use of GA1S in yellow dent corn; it doesn’t apply to color corn varieties such as white, blue, and red or open pollinated corn.

Pioneer Hi-Bred recently purchased Hogemeyer Hybrids, but Tom Hogemeyer retains ownership of the GA1S patent, according to Chris Hogemeyer, the company’s executive vice president.

PuraMaize hybrids coming in 2012

Blue River Hybrids licensed PuraMaize/GA1S from Hogemeyer Hybrids several years ago and has conducted field trials since 2007. Johnson is pleased with the trials. “From what we’ve seen the PuraMaize corn is a competitive hybrid and the system seems to work the way it’s supposed to.”

Blue River will introduce three corn hybrids in 2012 with the PuraMaize trait. “The amount of seed will be limited in the first year until we get the seed stock ramped up,” Johnson says.

He predicts that organic and conventional non-GMO farmers will be interested in the hybrids.

Another organic and non-GMO corn seed company, Prairie Hybrids, is also field testing PuraMaize. “We will be testing it to see that it doesn’t pick up GMOs and to see how yields compare,” says Prairie Hybrids representative Maynard Kropf.

Great Harvest Organics says they don’t plan to introduce hybrids with the gene-blocking traits. A company representative said, “Our focus is on offering elite genetics to the organic market.  The conversion process for this trait could slow that process down, so the question of whether or not the time lag is worth the potential yield loss of accessing elite germplasm in a timely manner, we feel has yet to be answered by the market.”

“The way we have to go”

SK Food International, a supplier of non-GMO and organic grains, developed an organic Red Crimson Corn variety with the GA1S trait and has grown it for the past three years on a few hundred acres.

“The trait is absolutely working well,” says Aaron Skyberg, SK Food marketing representative. “There have been zero issues with cross pollination.”

SK Food plans to introduce white and blue corn varieties with the GA1S trait.

Breeding the pollen-blocking traits into corn is a process that takes time, and Kutka understands that time is of the essence. “There is a lot of work on the breeders side, but I really see this as the way we have to go,” he says. “There is so much dominance by GM corn, and these tools offer great opportunities to reduce the chances for cross-pollination from GM corn.”

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