The Corn Next Door

In 2000, public officials in Boulder County, Colo., were faced with calls from organic farmers, environmentalists, and others to ban genetically modified (GM) crops.

Amy Norton(anorton@the-scientist.com)
Sep 25, 2005
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Photos courtesy of Boulder County Parks and Open Space

Boulder County Parks & Open Space official Robert Alexander with two ears of non-GMO corn. The fact that pollen from a blue corn plant pollinated some of the kernels of an ear from a yellow corn plant informed how officials determined the minimum buffer distance between growers of GMO and non-GMO corn, says Alexander.

In 2000, public officials in Boulder County, Colo., were faced with calls from organic farmers, environmentalists, and others to ban genetically modified (GM) crops. GM opponents worried that pollen drifting from transgenic corn fields could "contaminate" their organic cousins.

County commissioners weren't comfortable with an outright ban, but they decided to appoint a panel that would draw up a "good neighbor" policy to help organic and GM growers peacefully coexist on the county's large stretch of public land. Scientists at Colorado State University conducted a pollen drift study and concluded that a buffer zone of 150 feet could ensure a less-than-1% inadvertent, or adventitious, presence of GM pollen or other materials in non-GM corn crops.

Those involved in forging the coexistence plan – which county officials believe to be the first such effort in the United States – say things have gone smoothly so far, with no disputes over buffer zones or GM-tainted organic corn. It offers, they say, proof that organic and GM farms can be good neighbors. "GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are highly contentious here," Robert Alexander, an official with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, says of the organic-friendly region. "Coexistence is possible. We're doing it."

ORGANIC CERTIFICATION AT RISK?

But there's no consensus on the necessary ingredients for coexistence, and a panel at the June Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference in Philadelphia took up the issue. Many scientists and farmers believe coexistence is a fairly simple matter, achievable through neighborly communication and a certain level of tolerance for the adventitious presence of GMOs in organic crops. Others contend that organic and non-GM conventional growers are unfairly burdened with the responsibility for protecting their crops from what they regard as contamination.

At issue is organic certification, which is bestowed by 56 US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-accredited certifying agents across the country, and for which some consumers will pay a premium. These organizations ensure that growers follow national standards for organic production and handling.

"We are not categorically opposed to the use of biotech in agriculture," says Mark Lipson, an organic grower and policy director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) in Santa Cruz, Calif. But, he adds, US regulators have "taken coexistence for granted," and he sees a need for protections for non-GM growers. Lipson argues that biotech firms should be held liable for economic injury to organic farmers when seed commingling or pollen drift allow GMOs into their crops. According to USDA standards, organic farmers should not lose their certification due to adventitious presence of GMOs, as long as they take "reasonable steps" to prevent such commingling.

However, that rule is murky, and a few farmers in a 2002 OFRF survey said they lost certification due to GMO presence, according to Bob Scowcroft, the group's executive director. That survey, of 1,034 US organic farmers, also found that 8% reported some "economic impact" in the last growing season that they attributed to GM farming – the cost of testing their crops for GMOs, for example, or loss of organic markets due to actual contamination or buyers' fears of it. Though that figure is small, Scowcroft says, the survey results are a sign of a looming problem, as concern about GM contamination was a nonissue in earlier OFRF surveys.

Some state legislatures apparently feel the same way. Bills were floated in several states this year that would hold seed companies liable for economic damages to non-GM farmers whose crops were found to contain GMOs, including a measure in California that will be taken up again in 2006 and one in Vermont that is still alive.

BAD NEIGHBORS CAN FOSTER INNOVATION

But Drew Kershen, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, says such measures lack legal footing. It's the organic farmers who are aiming for a price premium, he says, and to hold biotech firms responsible for their market loss would be a "significant reversal of the laws as they have been." Kershen says coexistence essentially boils down to organic buyers having some tolerance for adventitious presence of GMOs. Organic certification, he points out, covers the processes growers use, and does not guarantee a "pure" final product.

Kershen points to a coexistence study by the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture, which concluded that a roughly 160-foot separation between corn fields and 160 to 1,300 feet between oilseed rape, depending on the species, should keep the detectable levels of GMOs in those crops below 0.5%. If buyers will accept such levels, Kershen says, then coexistence should be relatively easy to achieve.

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Photos courtesy of Boulder County Parks and Open Space

Roundup Ready GMO corn planted on Boulder County Parks & Open Space land, leased to a Longmont, Colorado farmer.

Fred Yoder, a past president of the National Corn Growers Association, says the key to coexistence is quite literally to be neighborly; when farmers communicate with each other, they can, for instance, vary their planting dates to avoid the issue of pollen drift. "We can handle (pollen drift) a lot better than people think," explains Yoder, noting that he and his own organic neighbor have a "great relationship." He says, "We can coexist just fine."

For less neighborly sorts, though, conventional corn breeding may soon lend a hand in the form of hybrid that shuns all pollen but its own. The small Nebraska firm Hoegemeyer Hybrids is set to market the corn, dubbed PuraMaize, for the 2006 growing season. Tom Hoegemeyer, who stresses that he is far from anti-GMO, says he saw a need for such a "niche" product when consumers, particularly in Europe, reacted negatively to the advent of transgenic crops in the 1990s.

The corn strain takes advantage of natural traits seen rarely in certain corn varieties native to Central America. Scientists have long known there are genes that affect corn pollination, Hoege-meyer notes, and developing the discriminating corn was "just a matter of perseverance."

Rex Bernardo, an agronomy professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, agrees that PuraMaize could help GM and organic corn crops live side-by-side, and could help growers in exporting to GM-wary markets in Europe and Japan, for instance. He points out, though, that cross-contamination can occur at several points between field and supermarket – via equipment, for instance, or at local elevators that take grain from many sources.

ENTER BIOPHARMACEUTICALS

Coexistence could get thornier as the business of biopharmaceuticals takes off. Sacramento, Calif.-based Ventria Bioscience, which is using rice to grow lactoferrin and lysozyme proteins to be used in products for diarrhea and dehydration, found that opposition could come from unexpected places when beer giant Anheuser-Busch objected to the firm's plans to grow its rice in Missouri.

Citing concerns that the pharmaceutical rice could contaminate commercial rice grown in the region, which the brewer uses to flavor its beer, the beer giant threatened to boycott Missouri rice, causing a stir among local farmers. This was despite the fact that unlike corn and canola, rice is self-pollinating, and despite the company's closed production system, Scott Deeter, Ventria's CEO, points out.

In April, Ventria and Anheuser-Busch struck a "compromise" in which the former agreed to plant 120 miles away from Missouri's rice belt. But that was too late for Ventria to get the necessary permits to grow its rice in the state this year. Instead, the company planted in North Carolina, on a few acres where it already had USDA approval.

But the company is still moving its headquarters to Maryville, Mo., and plans to plant its rice in the state next year. Deeter downplays any opposition the company has gotten from local farmers and other citizens – first in California, and now in Missouri – and says the Missouri Farm Bureau is "one of our biggest supporters." And he says the Anheuser-Busch conflict is an example of the neighborly cooperation everyone agrees is necessary for coexistence. "On the bright side," he says, "we did reach an agreement."