To GMO or Not GMO, That’s the Question

8/24/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

The GMO debate has received plenty of attention as several states consider legislation or include referendums on state ballots asking for the labeling of food containing GMOs, which is short for genetically modified organisms.

Organic and some animal-welfare certification programs prohibit the use of GMO crops. All other farmers have to decide on their own whether to grow GMO corn.

From a marketing perspective, there is no significant premium market in Pennsylvania for non-GMO corn, according to Penn State Extension educator John Berry.

He said he has not heard of much interest for non-GMO corn, but there has been a group trying to organize growers to grow and market non-GMO soybeans.

Dick Cole from Purdue Agribusiness echoes Berry’s sentiment.

“There is some talk about non-GMO production in the East Coast, but it is very limited,” Cole said. “There is no differentiation (in price). I am not going to ask if it’s GMO corn or not” when buying or marketing corn from growers.

Could there be a market down the road? Maybe, Cole said, but only time will tell. There are some smaller outlets that will pay a premium for non-GMO corn, but it’s not a volume market.

“It’s something to pay attention to in the next couple of years,” Cole said.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 85 percent of U.S. corn planted this year has an herbicide-tolerant trait. About 76 percent has some insect-resistant trait.

The development of GMO varieties — seeds in which a gene has been inserted to make the crop resistant to herbicides or pests — has increased yield per acre and encouraged the spread of no-till farming.

According to one farmer, who asked to be identified only by his last name, the answer to what to grow is simple. Select the best corn hybrid for your farm.

Beiler, a Plain Sect farmer from Lititz, grows a mix of GMO and non-GMO corn varieties that he uses for corn silage and grain to feed his dairy herd.

“I don’t plant GMO corn because it’s GMO or non-GMO corn because its non-GMO, I look at performance,” Beiler said. “If it has a good feeding quality, I am not going to throw it away because it’s GMO.”

The mix of varieties he selects is based on hybrid trial reports and crop performance. Although some people get emotional about the GMO debate, Beiler opts to keep his viewpoint practical by focusing on the data.

He does have a favorite conventional variety, but as he says, it can be a “corn borer magnet.”

Beiler uses a corn, forage and tobacco rotation. One of the corn years in a field could be a non-GMO variety.

For Jim Hershey of Elizabethtown, purchasing varieties with traits is essential.

“I have not chosen to take the challenge of non-GMO crops just because for me, the GMO crops have a value. It’s just the extra protection from the challenges we are faced with — insects and funguses and things that are challenging us,” Hershey said. “I try to manage to get the max yield protection from my crops.”

Hershey grows 500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and barley in Elizabethtown. He also has a corn and soybean farm in Ohio. He owns 700 acres and rents an additional 800. Both farms are managed in a no-till system.

Although some farmers might opt to select non-GMO crops, Hershey believes the risk is too great for his farm. He uses varieties that include Roundup-Ready and LibertyLink resistance as well as triple-stacked varieties.

There is a lot of discussion on the effects GMO crops may have on animal and soil health, including anecdotes that can be found online.

One story is how deer will walk through a GMO field to eat corn from a non-GMO field. But are the deer turned off by the GMO trait or is it something else?

Penn State agronomy educator Jeff Graybill recalls field trials he has conducted through the years where he’s observed that deer will select one variety over another because of its maturity or some other characteristic such as corn ears that are closer to the ground. And the preferred variety has sometimes been GMO and sometimes non-GMO.

Graybill said that if you take two varieties — one GMO and one non-GMO — and send them to a forage lab for nutritional analysis, there will not be any significant nutritional difference between the two, all other things — such as storage, harvest and handing — being equal.

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