Originally published in the Chat 'n Chew Cafe, February 2000
URL: http://www.kingcorn.org/news/articles.00/GMO_Issues-000203.html

Transgenic Crops in Indiana:
Short-term issues for farmers

R.L. (Bob) Nielsen
Agronomy Dept., Purdue Univ.
West Lafayette, IN 47907-1150

Email address: rnielsen@purdue.edu

What’s in a Name?

The phrase "genetically modified organism" and its acronym "GMO", as they are being used in debates throughout the world, refer primarily to those crop varieties that contain genes physically transferred from another species. Such crop varieties are more accurately described as being "transgenic" and will be referred to as such in this short article.

Transgenics as Agronomic Inputs for Indiana Farmers.

First of all, let’s recognize that insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant varieties are NOT CRITICAL for the successful production of corn and soybean in Indiana! In other words, growing non-transgenics will not result in economic ruin for most Indiana farmers!

Secondly, you do NOT need a contract to grow non-transgenic crops if you are simply growing for the marketplace. In other words, growing non-transgenics will not automatically require efforts to segregate and certify non-transgenic status.

However, if you want to aim for a non-transgenic market premium, you should arrange for a contract or agreement with the grain buyer to guarantee that your non-transgenic grain has a home this fall. Also, recognize that fulfilling such contracts may require you to certify that the grain you harvest and deliver is non-transgenic. The ramification of this is that producing certified non-transgenic crops is not cost-free!

The Indiana Crop Improvement Association (ICIA) will be offering a certification service for non-transgenic corn hybrids in 2000. The ICIA certification guidelines for 2000 corn production include …

For more information on ICIA’s certification service, contact them by phone at (765) 523-2535 or by email at icia@indianacrop.org .

Should You Grow Transgenics or Not?

Indiana growers must determine the balance between the agronomic costs, agronomic benefits and market uncertainties of producing transgenic crop varieties in 2000. Two general examples of this balancing act are:

  1. High cost + little benefit + uncertain cash grain market = substantial economic risk
  2. High cost + some benefit + feed own livestock = little economic risk

The cost of the technology is simple to figure, it is simply the "technology fee" added to the seed cost by the seed company. Determining the agronomic benefit of the technology is more difficult to ascertain. Commonly available sources of information about these benefits include magazine or TV marketing pieces, sales pitches by company sales representatives, and testimonials by folks who have used the technology in the past. All of these sources should be taken with the proverbial "grain of salt".

What farmers should strive to obtain are actual performance data comparing the transgenic varieties of interest with alternative non-transgenic varieties. Ideally, these data should be summarized from trials conducted over many locations and/or years.

In my opinion, the best way to use such data sets is to compare the top-yielding transgenic varieties in a trial with the top-yielding non-transgenic varieties in the same trial. Comparisons to "normal" counterparts or to "top-selling" competitors are not necessarily "fair" comparisons because these varieties are not always the "latest and greatest" varieties. This fact is important because you need to determine whether the transgenic variety in question yields as good or better than the best available variety in today’s marketplace.

Example of Bt Corn.

These hybrids are resistant to European corn borer (ECB), and southwestern corn borer found in the extreme southern counties of Indiana, by virtue of the transfer of a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that codes for the production of a protein that is toxic to such insects. The Bt trait, by itself, does not increase yield of corn. Rather, it is an "insurance" trait that confers protection from the pest when it is present in the field. In years when the pest is present in subeconomic numbers, the trait offers little payback to the grower. Based on the low historical frequencies and severities of ECB outbreaks in Indiana over the past 20 years, it is difficult to conclude that Bt corn is economical for the average Indiana corn field considering the higher cost of the seed relative to non-Bt hybrids. For details supporting this statement, see Purdue Extension publication ID-219, The Economics of Bt Corn: Adoption Implications.

If you follow my advice and compare the best yielding Bt hybrids with the best yielding non-Bt hybrids grown in the same trials, you will often discover little difference in yields when ECB pressure is minor. Figure 1 below illustrates the average yields of the top five yielding Bt and top five yielding non-Bt hybrids summarized from each testing region of the 1999 Purdue Corn Performance Trials. In this "best versus the best" comparison, one is hard-pressed to conclude that the Bt trait offered any yield enhancement in a year with subeconomic ECB pressure. Similar comparisons of the "best versus the best" from university trials in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri in 1999 result in the same conclusion that the Bt trait, in and of itself, does not result in increased yield.

These comparisons should not be construed to mean that the Bt trait has no value for Indiana corn growers. Indeed, such an "insurance" trait can be positioned within your planting date schedule to maximize its opportunity to defend against ECB outbreaks. Primarily, this means considering the use of Bt hybrids for those "out of whack" planting dates, because such plantings will likely suffer more ECB damage. Extremely early corn plantings are often more "desirable" to first generation ECB moths, while extremely late plantings or late maturing hybrids are often more "desirable" to second generation or later ECB moths.

Example of Roundup-Ready™ Soybean.

These soybean varieties are tolerant to the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup®). The tolerance results from the transfer of a gene from a soil bacterium (Agrobacterium sp.) that codes for an enzyme, usually inhibited by glyphosate, that is critical for the production of three aromatic amino acids without which plant death occurs. A number of advantages can be listed for the Roundup-Ready™ (aka RR) soybean technology, including:

However, some agronomic challenges to the economic adoption of the technology also exist, including:

Bottom Line …

  1. The "GMO" debate will likely continue into the near future (12 to 18 months) and will consequently fuel the uncertainty in the grain markets for the acceptance of such products.
  2. The currently available transgenic hybrids and varieties are not critical for the agronomic success of most Indiana corn/soy operations.
  3. Consequently, a farmer’s choice on whether to grow transgenic hybrids or varieties depends primarily on his/her perception of the market uncertainties for the coming crop year and the availability of good-yielding non-transgenic hybrids or varieties.
Bt vs nonBt corn hybrids - Purdue 99
RR vs nonRR - 1998
RR vs nonRR - 1999

Corn Growers GuidebookFor other information about corn, take a look at the Corn Growers Guidebook on the World Wide Web at http://www.kingcorn.org

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© 2000, Purdue University
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