In the modern world where large agriculture companies are gaining ground with GM (genetically modified) corn seeds, non-GM growers have been in an increasingly difficult situation from GM pollen drift. This pollen can drift over four miles in the wind and once it lands in a non-GM field, that corn becomes tainted with the GM variety. Once contaminated, the farmer typically gets a lower price, and for specialty food grade and organic corn the price can be as little as half what it would have been. However, one bright spot is that a few plant breeders have found a way to develop non-GM corn varieties that “say no” to the GM pollen when it comes blowing its way.
Blue River Hybrids in Ames, Iowa U.S.A., is the leading company that offers this type of seed, known as PuraMaize, for Midwest U.S. farmers. Blue River describes PuraMaize as a natural gene system which impedes pollination from GMO traited and blue corn pollen. It is naturally bred into Blue River corn hybrids, giving organic farmers a powerful tool to combat contamination from neighboring fields. Corn hybrids that contain the PuraMaize gene complex have the ability to recognize and favor pollen that also contains the PuraMaize gene complex. During pollination, the pollen grains move down the silk channel trying to fertilize the potential kernel. A PuraMaize corn plant will quickly accept like pollen from other PuraMaize plants and slow the pollen of a foreign plant, like GMO or blue corn. The foreign pollen can’t win the race down the silk channel and is unable to contaminate the PuraMaize plant.
Many years ago, some plant breeders identified this natural gene system occurring in certain corn plants. They spent a great deal of time crossing corn plants to breed this characteristic into different corn varieties that would produce well in commercial fields. It was eventually discovered that a specific complex of natural genes in the plant caused these corn plants to quickly accept pollen of its specific type when it landed on the silk. Researchers are continuing to work on developing corn varieties that contain this natural gene system. Called by some as “organic ready” because organic farmers can easily keep their crop GM free, plant breeders in North Dakota (ND) and North Carolina (NC) recently started developing more varieties with this trait for both the northern and southern U.S. growing regions. Unlike Blue River’s PuraMaize seed which is patented, the seeds from ND and NC will not be patented which means farmers will have the option to save their own seed. Non-GM farmers will have increasingly more options for corn varieties that do not accept the GM pollen in the coming years.
Currently, Blue River Hybrids has been the largest company selling the PuraMaize corn seed. It has averaged a yield of 190 to 200 bushels/acre in Iowa test plots making it competitive with other widely grown varieties in the Midwestern corn belt. At least two other smaller companies in Iowa and Minnesota provided PuraMaize seed to farmers this year. The other breeders which are currently developing more “organic ready” varieties are working on some open-pollinated corn, but it is still in the research phase. Breeders in Florida, Georgia, and even Chile are also getting involved in the process of developing these corn varieties.
In the international export market, conventional non-GM corn typically receives a $.40 to $.50 USD/bushel premium over GM corn with specific food grades known as “identity preserved grains” selling for much higher premiums. As breeders continue to develop varieties that can remain GM-free, this could benefit countries such as Belize. Once permanent port infrastructure to facilitate bulk export is in place, Belizean farmers may have an opportunity to grow conventional corn and receive a higher price using these GM-pollen-resistant varieties.
Editor’s Note: Sam Vigue currently lives in Austin, TX. He grew up in Central Illinois, and received a Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State University in agronomy, seed science, and horticulture. His interests are centered on improving the food supply through better farm practices. Sam works as an agronomist for Green and Grow, Inc. in seed treatment research. In his spare time, he does research and consulting on sustainable farming methods. He is especially interested in improving the availability of seed varieties that are adapted to local conditions.
PuraMaize description and illustration was provided by Blue River Hybrids. Blueriverorgseed.com
Information sources: “This Breeder Is Working on ‘Organic Ready’ Corn That Blocks GMO Contamination | Civil Eats.” Civil Eats This Breeder Is Working on Organic Ready Corn That Blocks GMO Contamination Comments. 5 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. “‘Organic Ready’ Corn: The Fight to Stop GMOs.” Triple Pundit People Planet Profit. 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.