Federal agencies regulate genetically modified organisms to ensure they’re safe for human, plant and animal health. A majority of scientific organizations have said genetically modified organisms are safe. Other groups such as the Non-GMO Project are skeptical, citing the scarcity of independent long-term-feeding studies. And several countries have restricted or prohibited genetically modified food.
As a result there is demand for non-genetically modified crops. The global market for food made with non-genetically modified organisms is expected to increase at an annual growth rate of 12 percent from now through 2025, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.
Farmers can capture premiums for growing non-genetically modified crops. But those premiums don’t come easy, according to farmers participating in a panel discussion during the recent Organic & Non-GMO Forum.
Producing non-genetically modified crops requires dealing with forward contracts, cleaning combines, on-farm storage, inventive ways of dealing with weed and insect pressures, certifications, audits and visits, said Eric Wenberg, executive director of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance and moderator of the panel.
On-farm storage is critical. Non-genetically modified grain and oilseeds must be segregated from their genetically modified counterparts.
Keith Schrader, a farmer and CEO of Wheeling Grain Partnership near Northfield, Minnesota, preserves the identity of non-genetically modified soybeans in small bins. Some of those bins are located on various farms where he rents land.
He grows both genetically modified and non-genetically modified corn and soybeans. About two-thirds of his soybean production is non-genetically modified. One-third of his corn is non-genetically modified. He maintains a drying site where all the non-genetically modified corn is stored.
Nancy Kavazanjian is a farmer and a partner in Hammer-Kavazanjian Farms near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. She grows corn, soybeans, wheat and barley, and stores non-genetically modified soybeans in small bins at a specified site.
She spoke about weed management. The south-central Wisconsin farm recently had late-season weed pressure from herbicide-resistant waterhemp.
“We walked the fields and hired some people to pull weeds to keep them from going to seed,” she said.
John Heinecke, a farmer and owner of Heinecke Ag Ventures near Paris, Missouri, grows 100 percent non-genetically modified crops. He also experienced problems with waterhemp.
“It’s related to a pH issue, which we’re going to handle,” he said. “But our soybeans were spectacular with good size. I just wish we would have had better yield.”
Schrader said his non-genetically modified soybeans also looked good despite weed pressure in small patches. It’s more difficult to control weed pressure in non-genetically modified soybeans than with their genetically modified counterparts, he said.
“As we were harvesting we did some hand pulling,” he said. “I also did a little cultivating.”
His combine operators harvested around the weed patches. After those patches were cleaned, soybeans that grew closest to them were shipped with genetically modified soybeans, he said.
Three food companies buy his non-genetically modified soybeans. Schrader mainly plants varieties those companies desire. At harvest time he and his team collect samples from the combine as well as the bins.
“Those samples go immediately to the buyers, which check for purity,” he said.
It’s more difficult to ensure purity in corn because the crop cross-pollinates. Schrader said he must ensure there’s appropriate distance between his fields and any neighboring field planted to genetically modified corn. His corn also is taken to separate sites for drying.
When filling corn bins he takes about three or four samples to be tested for purity. He’s allowed a bit more leeway for corn than soybeans due to the possibility of cross pollination, he said. The corn is accepted if it has a purity of 95 percent.
Hammer-Kavazanjian Farms has worked with the same soybean buyer for about 30 years. That buyer delivers seed varieties to the farm and tests the oilseeds the farm delivers after harvest. The soybeans must meet the threshold of 5 percent genetic modification. Hammer-Kavazanjian tests and sells non-genetically modified corn to area dairy farms.
In addition to growing non-genetically modified crops, Heinecke grows seed. He uses an EnviroLogix test kit on his farm.
“We test truckloads to meet purity standards,” he said.
He also maintains documentation on seed lots, and plans to purchase in the future his own seed-conditioning and -treating equipment. Heinecke added one of his biggest challenges is logistics. He farms in northeastern Missouri and his closest buyer is about a two-hour drive. He dealt with that challenge by recently partnering with a group to load barges on the Mississippi River. That partner is just a 40-mile drive from his operation.
“We tried to match our production to fill barges this year,” he said. “This is a new venture but I think it’s going to be good.”
He also looks for opportunities to partner with trucking firms to transport his grain or oilseeds.
“It’s cheaper if you can catch a back haul than having to send a truck in one direction,” he said.
Heinecke Ag Ventures is located near U.S. Highway 36, which runs from Kansas City through Springfield, Illinois, to Indianapolis. But he must calculate the costs and time involvement to choose whether to do his own trucking or to pay another firm, he said.
The premiums farmers may earn by growing non-genetically modified crops can be attractive. Non-genetically modified crops can fetch premiums for commodities of $.65 per bushel to $1.15 per bushel in animal-feed markets, Wenberg said. And food-grade natto soybeans can fetch premiums of $3.20 per bushel.
But those premiums do fluctuate with the prices of commodity grains and oilseeds. And yields of non-genetically modified varieties are frequently less than those of their genetically modified counterparts. Despite that Schrader said raising value-added crops has made a huge difference in keeping his farm profitable, particularly when he multiples the amount of acres by the premium.
Kavazanjian said the premium market has helped her farm through the years. The farm also has saved as much as $50 per acre by not using the technology in genetically modified seed, she said.
“Even with a little less yield with non-genetically modified corn, we felt it was a win-win because we could afford to lose almost 10 bushels per acre to make up the difference in price,” she said.
The farmers agreed that more breeding work must be done to improve yields and overall agronomic packages of non-genetically modified varieties. Due to the significant costs involved in plant breeding there are few public institutions developing varieties.
Heinecke said, “You must weigh the yield and the premium. If it doesn’t make sense on yield you can’t do it. But people also need to stop seeing non-genetically modified as a niche market. It's no longer a niche market. I have a list of people wanting to buy non-genetically modified soybeans; they can’t find enough. We must get (plant breeders) to work on these varieties.”
The value of U.S. soybean exports in 2019 was about $19 billion. The value of identify-preserved soybean exports was $1.7 billion, Wenberg said.
He asked, “What sounds niche about a $1.7 billion agricultural opportunity?”
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.