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Fostering Sustainable Agriculture through Research, Education and Policy since 1984

Organic Corn Breeding Program

We are breeding corn to work with organic systems – that means it needs to be strong, able to out compete weeds, resist other pests and diseases, adapt to changing climatic conditions, and it needs to stand and yield well. Our breeding work, both nursery and grow-out trials is conducted on certified organic land using practices employed by successful organic growers.
Breeding Program Goals: Our program has two goals, selection for grain quality and to develop true breeding lines with gametophytic incompatibility to prevent GMO contamination of organic corn. Corn kernels consist mostly of starch, a good energy source, but limiting in a number of food and feed applications. We seek to increase overall protein levels to improve nutritional utility, but specifically levels of amino acids such as methionine to increase protein quality. This is especially important for organic poultry production which currently relies on synthetic sources of this critical, limiting nutrient. The USDA organic standard currently allows use of synthetic methionine, but this is under constant review and if disallowed, would severely impact the organic poultry and pork industries.
Gametophytic incompatibility is the ability of corn (and other crops) to prevent cross pollination and more importantly, genes for transgenic traits from entering a breeding line. This is a huge problem for the organic seed corn industry because pollen can drift more than a quarter mile and contamination with GMO traits at any level will cause rejection of grain at terminals. All conventional hybrids, even if “non-traited” contain some level of contamination, most notably for the “Round-up Ready” or glyphosate tolerant trait. Obtaining true-breeding, GMO free lines for organic agriculture is critical for maintaining industry integrity.
This work is conducted in partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Services Corn Insects and Crops Genetics Research Unit, Ames Iowa.