Buffer crop keeps GMOs out of organic corn

GUELPH, Ont. — A new corn variety may provide organic growers exactly what they need: a buffer zone between fields of genetically modified and organic corn.

The buffer is a genetic advancement that creates a technological barrier between corn fields.

The hybrid, known as PuraMaize, features a gene blocking system that solves the problem of GM corn pollen drifting onto corn plants in adjacent organic fields.

“Grain buyers want assurance that grain will be free from GMO contamination, and PuraMaize offers just that,” Maury Johnson, owner of Blue River Hybrids, an organic seed dealer in Kelley, Iowa, said in a statement.

“PuraMaize is highly effective in protecting corn from GMO field drift… (so) grain farmers and buyers have a powerful new tool at their disposal for preserving non-GMO integrity.”

Hoegemeyer Hybrids of Nebraska patented the PuraMaize technology several years ago. For now, Blue River Hybrids is the only U.S. company licensed to distribute the hybrid, which was developed through conventional corn breeding.

A company fact sheet said PuraMaize contains genes known as gametophyte factors. A gene, commonly known as GA1S, preferentially selects pollen from corn plants with the same genotype, which obstructs pollination drift from other corn hybrids.

Organic growers need this technology because GM contamination is a challenge and will soon become a larger problem in North America.

Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and Bayer are expected to release corn, soybeans and other crops with stacked herbicide tolerance over the next few of years. The introduction of new herbicide tolerant traits will increase the amount of GMOs in fields across the United States and Canada, which will increase the risk of GMO contamination in organic crops.

Several organic advocates suggested at the Guelph Organic Conference in early February that the federal government should intervene. They said that in an ideal world, conventional growers should have to establish buffer zones on the edges of their fields to prevent pollen drift into organic fields.

However, Tom Manley, owner of Homestead Organics, a farm supply and advisory service near Cornwall, Ont., said such a policy is an organic pipe dream.

Pierre Lemieux, parliamentary sector for agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, has made it clear that he doesn’t think GMOs are a public risk, Manley said at the Guelph meeting. If the government says GMOs aren’t a contaminant and aren’t a threat to the public, then the organic sector can’t be asking for a policy to prevent GMO contamination, he added.

“So there’s just no air in the balloon at all.”

Organic growers may have to instead rely on technological solutions such as PuraMaize.

Blue River Hybrids sold PuraMaize for the first time last year. Producers in 11 states planted the corn variety and grower response has been positive, said Erika Brodersen, marketing manager for Blue River Hybrids.

“We’ve got people from Iowa to Maryland that are planting PuraMaize,” she said.

The company sells PuraMaize in Canada through a distributor in Ontario.

Last year was a tough summer for corn growers in many regions of the U.S., but the PuraMaize hybrid performed fairly well, Brodersen said.

“As far as the yield, we’re seeing comparable yields comparable to other products (organic corn varieties).”

In addition, independent testing either didn’t detect GMOs in PuraMaize corn grown last year or detected GMO levels of less than 0.05 percent.

PuraMaize is the first corn hybrid to reach the commercial phase, but other entrepreneurs are developing similar technologies.

As reported in the Organic & Non-GMO report, Frank Kutka, a North Dakota State University corn breeder, is developing varieties called “organic ready,” which recognizes its own pollen and rejects pollen from other corn hybrids.

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