Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
With increasing demand on the global market for foodstuffs free of genetically modified organisms, U.S. farmers face a serious economic dilemma. Even those who grow non-GMO conventional or organic crops are at risk for economic losses due to cross-contamination with genetically modified pollen. Corn shipments rejected by China, which were contaminated with the genetically modified Bt gene, have already cost American farmers over $4 billion since November 2013. Projections indicate that these losses will only gain momentum as more people wake up to the dangers of GMOs around the world. Outright GMO bans have already been implemented by several countries like France, Russia and China.
Creative solutions are needed — and soon. As luck would have it, plant breeder Frank Kutka has been working for nearly 15 years to develop a breed that has the ability to prevent cross-contamination in corn.
The problem with GM corn
Every year, U.S. farmers plant millions of acres of GM corn — a staggering 93 percent of all corn crops in America are genetically modified. For those who don’t take issue with GM food, this fact isn’t a cause for concern. But for farmers and consumers that would like to keep GMOs out of their fields — and off their plates — a whole slew of issues arise. One of the top concerns is how to avoid the cross-contamination of non-GMO and organic plants by their genetically modified brethren.
Considering that each corn plant produces millions of pollen grains, which in turn are carried by the wind to pollinate other corn plants, it seems nearly impossible to keep non-GMO and organic corn crops safe. But through traditional breeding practices — and thoughtful innovation — people like Kutka are making a difference.
Seeking modern solutions in ancient crops
Finding inspiration in crops of the past, Kutka thinks he may have found the answer to cross-pollination issues in corn. Teosinte, an ancient relative of maize, has a pollen block trait (Ga2S) that makes it hard for GM pollen to enter corn silks. He’s also focusing on a trait found in popcorn (Ga1S), which has been used for decades to reduce the risk of out-crossing in certain breeds.
Beginning in 2001, Kutka has been working on pollen-blocking traits since his days as a graduate student at Cornell University. He chose the name “Organic Ready” for his new breed as a parody of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops.
Kutka hopes to release Organic Ready seed varieties in 2015. His breed won’t be the first pollen-blocking corn variety, however. Blue River Hybrids offers a corn stock by the name of PuraMaize. Tests on PuraMaize have found that harvests from 2012 and 2013 tested negative for GMOs at the threshold limit of 0.05 percent. PuraMaize is a patented trait that was licensed from Hogemeyer Hybrids in Nebraska.
Kuta believes that farmers and corn breeders should have open access to Organic Ready corn. In order to prevent the seeds from being patented, they will be available to the public along with short publications in the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter.
“These seed releases are to encourage others to work with this trait and for organic farmers to grow as they wish,” he said.
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