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Sowing seeds for the little guy

At a field day at Iowa State University's Agronomy Farm, researcher Margaret Smith discusses field corn she has been breeding at Cornell University to adapt to upstate New York’s climate. Smith also is testing the corn across the Midwest as part of the U.S. Testing Network developed by Practical Farmers of Iowa. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)

An estimated 80 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified. Much of that technology is patented and quite expensive. Farmers who want to grow non-GMO hybrids or organic corn can have trouble finding companies that sell these seeds.

"We've seen dramatic consolidation in the seed industry, especially since the mid-80s until now, and we see farmers concerned about their access to their favorite hybrids," said Sarah Carlson, research and policy director at Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Enter the U.S. Testing Network.  Developed by Practical Farmers of Iowa, it comprises independent seed companies and public researchers, including the USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Iowa State University in Ames.

Just this year, the fledgling seed network created a group to breed and develop organic hybrids with traits farmers request. It's funded for three years by a $2.8 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Corn breeding programs have lost considerable amounts money. The programs that are focused specifically on corn breeding, a lot of that money has gone into more genomics and genetic modification," Carlson said.  "There aren't very many (basic breeders) out there any more, and there aren't very many breeders that are selecting under organic specific environments."

The goal of the U.S. Testing Network is to help develop marketable varieties of non-genetically modified corn. Then small and midsized seed companies who don't have money for their own research could pick up these varieties and sell them. 

"This opens up great opportunity for cooperation, that will then release hybrids into market that farmers will want to buy because they're going to be good performing hybrids," Carlson said. The net effect is to funnel money back into the public breeding programs.

Practical Farmers of Iowa recently held a field day at Iowa State's Agronomy Farm and  invited farmers to check out some of the hybrids and weigh in on what traits they would like to see developed. Researchers from public universities in the network led the group through the swishing fields of corn stalks, pointing out various characteristics ranging from protein content to sweetness to drought-resistance.

One trait researchers are working on is developing corn with higher protein content that would make better poultry feed and reduce the need for expensive additives. 

It takes time to develop and solidify a working hybrid, and then getting onto the market is a whole additional step, Carlson said.

"Our goal is that in the three years of the grant, with (seeds) that are already been improved and have started being tested, we will be able to woo a seed retailer to want to take the risk to try it in the market," Carlson said.