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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

The Social and Environmental Context

Neither Good for Farmers nor Consumers

Corn is the highest yielding, best-adapted cereal crop, and the most lucrative seed business in the country.  There used to be many small companies that bred corn. However, in the last two decades there have been major consolidations as a few large companies struggle to dominate the supply of elite corn seed.

This development is neither good for farmers nor consumers.  The big companies are pushing the sale of genetically engineered corn seed and they have strongly increased the prices of seed to farmers.  The supply of top-yielding corn varieties that are available to farmers, but not genetically engineered, is decreasing.  Most of the major companies have already entirely ceased production of non-transgenic or untreated corn seed or they will do so in the near future.

In the past there have been many independent, local, small companies that have produced hybrid seed from inbred seed that they bought from the breeding companies or from the Universities.  They sold this hybrid seed directly to farmers and thereby provided a local alternative for farmers to purchase their seed. If they are to survive and maintain their function, such small seed companies need to find greater choices for obtaining elite corn breeding stocks. In the past, the public breeding programs at Land-Grant Universities have provided an alternative source of seed.  Unfortunately, many of the Universities have given up their corn breeding programs.  The Universities have tilted their emphasis to lab research because the big research money is in genomics and they are afraid of being criticized for competing with the private corn breeding companies.

This picture of consolidation and fixation stands in stark contrast to the demands on agriculture set in today’s social situation.  In today’s agriculture, problems loom with environmental degradation and resource pollution, soaring energy and input costs, and a possible end for support programs for commodities.  It is actually time to encourage diversity, to reconsider the way we grow corn and the type of corn we are growing, to adopt a longer-term vision, and to take proactive measures.  Farmers need to adopt strategies with greater biological diversification, reduce the use of mineral N fertilizer, conserve or build their soil resources, widen their crop rotations and reduce or eliminate their herbicide inputs. That all means breeding corn that is productive and reliable under lower-input systems.  Coupled with that is the need for selecting corn under the environmental stresses associated with climatic instability.

This need is especially relevant now because organic farming has emerged as the fastest growing sector of American agriculture with a parallel expansion in niche markets, and its growth is limited by a lack of feed grains.  Organic and sustainable farmers need corn that performs well under their conditions, responds to low nitrogen conditions and competes well with weeds.  They often feed their own grain to livestock, and want nutritional value, good taste, and unique markets as well as yield.  They are concerned that modern corn has only been bred for field performance and not for quality, which has declined.  These farmers want quality because they believe it is essential to maintain optimal health of their livestock.

These organic farmers also do not want transgenes (GMO’s) in their corn.  In fact, many consumers both here and overseas also do not want trangenes in their food.  Despite that, transgenic corn has penetrated our country’s food supply.  This is simply because corn is the major commodity that provides enormous quantities of foodstuff that enters into the American and international industrial food chain.  We consume this corn in most animal products and processed foods (corn chips, syrup, starch, soda, fruit juice, canned foods, highly processed food, etc).  Corn is also a major constituent of many pet foods and has even found its way into our gasoline supply in the form of ethanol.

Though breeding higher quality corn for organic farmers should have a higher inherent financial value, large breeding companies have not invested in it due to small market size and lack of immediate financial returns and possibly also due to conflicts in corporate image.