Most of us wouldn't give a second thought about the future of organic corn, especially if we purchase organic products regularly. We go to the store, select our organically-labeled produce, pay for the product and we're on our way. Organic vegetables, fruits and grains are a perennial favorite these days, and what one store may not have, the next will likely stock.
But for biologist Frank Kutka, the future of organic farming isn't that simple, especially when it comes to corn. In fact, its future is anything but secure.
That's because corn is one of those plants that relies on the wind to cross-pollinate and is subject to the drift from other corn fields. Most of us have heard those fantastic stories about organic farmers that have found their rows of organic corn infiltrated by genetically-modified pollen from neighbors' fields. For Kutka, those stories aren't remarkable, they are a reflection of a growing danger to the integrity of the organic corn industry.
"[We’ve] got problems with transgenic contamination of organic corn, both in the seed we buy to grow organically unfortunately, and frequently in the crop as it is sold," Kutka explained. For commercial farmers, that can be a real problem, as transgenic contamination can bar their product from being sold as organic produce, particularly in Europe where mechanisms are often in place to ensure that organic products are really organically grown.
Kutka, who specializes in plant breeding techniques, has made the future of organic corn his life's passion. Most days he can be found in an organically-grown corn patch, either the one on his farm in North Dakota or others that he is helping to found. Or he is on the phone, Facebook or another media helping researchers champion the use of the gametophytic incompatibility 1 trait, or Ga1s for short.
That may sound like a mouthful, but its potential in terms of preserving the integrity of organic corn is huge, says Kutka.
"[Ga1s] came from South American popcorn and has been the savior of the popcorn industry in the USA," Kutka said. "It was successfully employed back in the 1950s and onward to prevent unwanted outcrossing of popcorn with field corn."
Those plants that have matching genes -- or are homozygous -- for Ga1s are unlikely to be affected by drift from non Ga1s plants, even if they are in the next-door field. Field corn, what is commonly grown in the U.S., doesn't carry the Ga1s trait, said Kutka, so the Ga1s gene "is very good, strong protection and reduces unwanted outcrop." Kutka's own version of corn carrying this trait is called Organic Ready corn, a lighthearted reference to Monsanto's genetically-modified Roundup Ready product.
Kutka is not the first researcher to delve into this kind of exhaustive research on corn. Dr. Tom Hoegemeyer at the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska successfully bred a line of Ga1 homozygous corn in the 1990s and coined it Puramaize. The patent on this unique version is now owned by Cerrado Natural Systems Group and is limited only to use in yellow dent corn, a type of corn that is commonly found here in the U.S. The patented line is now being promoted for commercial farming by Blue River Hybrid Organic Seed in Iowa.
Kutka said he started his research on Organic Ready to ensure that farmers of all sizes, whether part-time hobbyists, or large-scale commercial farmers, could access organic corn seed that would be resistant to GMO cross-pollination.
"I wanted to get into it to make sure that the trait was available to people without patent, so without having to pay expensive seed fees. So, I wanted to make sure the trait got into some open pollinated corn," said Kutka, who noted that apart from Hoegemeyer's accomplishments, there appears to have been very little work in this area in the past. "I also wanted to make sure it got into some breeding lines so that those making hybrids could get going,"
Despite the slow start, the concept of breeding incompatibility traits into organic corn is finally beginning to gain steam, Kutka said. The Breeding and Genetics Department at North Carolina State University, headed by Dr. Major Goodman, has taken up the challenge, as have a number of breeders in Georgia, Florida and Chile, who are working with Kutka on this endeavor. The true mark of the success of his project is being able to breed the trait in as many environments as possible, a task that takes time, legwork and a lot of patience with the elements.
"Imagine if one of your varieties of corn flowers and the other doesn’t right away," he explained. Climate, or just the fickleness of Mother Nature during a particular season, may yield those unexpected results, but they can have a decisive effect on that year's product if cross-pollination doesn't occur. "Well [then] I can’t make that cross, and if it just completely fails that year, that whole program just lost a season." Ouch.
"Luckily it is a multi-faceted project and so I am having multiple successes and multiple not-quite-there-yets," Kutka said.
And yes, climate change may be an issue, said Kutka, who expressed some concern about what warming temps may bring to his efforts.
"There are certainly concerns around corn: What is it that is coming, and should we be trying to get ahead for diseases and pests that exist in the south because they may soon move north?" They are questions that have also added some urgency to his work.
Both Kutka and the owners of Blue River stress that Ga1s breeding is not a form of genetic modification, but rather a breeding mechanism that relies on nature's own defense mechanisms in certain types of corn. Still, Kutka said he's used to the odd look from people who haven't heard of his project.
"It is not unusual to get some eyebrows raised when you mention corn genetics at all. And when you use strange words and talk about genes and traits, these have come to take on a meaning that isn't the original meaning." He is often asked whether this is GMO. "I say, no, this is natural corn breeding and naturally existing corn traits," an answer that isn't always understood.
Still, Kutka's efforts are growing. The Organic Ready project has received funding from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, and support from a number of educational institutions and non-governmental organizations that have seen merit in his project. He's received inquiries as far away as Argentina and Poland, as well as offers from a U.S.-based farming organization to help with the project. He is also gaining the attention of organic farming advocates who recognize that organic field corn's most intrinsic trait -- its ability to be easily pollinated in the wind -- may one day make it an endangered species without Ga1s breeding.
"Corn is a very useful plant and valuable plant in organic agriculture. And we need to keep it in organic agriculture," Kutka said. "This trait, along with our other tools for reducing unwanted outcrossing, can help us do that if we learn how to use them and then employ them."
If there is any lesson to be learned from Kutka's successes thus far, it may be the power in conventional breeding methods that often seem dwarfed by today's technology, but have been in existence for at least two centuries. It will be interesting to see how the Organic Ready line develops in coming years and whether this nascent movement can save the future of organic corn.
Image credits: Frank Kutka
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.