Preserving Your Corn's Identity
By Greg Stewart, OMAFRA Corn Specialist

Seed corn and waxy corn growers have been segregating and preserving the identity of their corn crops for years. Concerns over the marketing of genetically enhanced (GE) corn has sparked increasing levels of interest in identity preservation systems in commercial corn. This fall we are in the midst of segregating out those hybrids that contain GE events which are not approved in the European Union. What are the principal questions and/or concerns in regards to identity preservation of corn this fall and beyond?

What are you planting?
Late April of this year was marked by a whirlwind of confusion regarding genetic events, European non-approved hybrids and marketing options for these hybrids. In the future, hybrid selection will need to be based carefully on genetic traits because of their agronomic importance to your farm operation and because of the marketing implications. It won’t be enough to select Bt versus non-Bt; you will need to keep track of specific hybrids that contain Bt events that do not restrict your markets. Keeping accurate records of hybrid traits, selecting suitable hybrids, and planting these hybrids with a scrupulously clean corn planter may all become part of identity preservation in commercial corn production.

Where are you planting?
The need to more carefully consider field location will also enter into the identity preservation system. Since corn is a cross-pollinating crop the risk of harvesting corn with traits other than those planted is real. Isolation distances in seed corn production are set at 200 metres to ensure very low levels of contamination from neighbouring pollen. Removal of the outside rounds from a field generally goes a long way to maintaining the purity of the corn harvested from the remaining portion of the field. The problem with trying to finalize any particular approach for isolating GE corn is that we don’t know what tolerance level will be acceptable to those who prefer to purchase non-GE corn. At two per cent tolerance levels (i.e., two per cent GE in a non-GE truck load) we could probably make it work with approaches similar to seed or waxy corn production; at 0.1 per cent the influences of wind borne pollen would make the task of identity preservation daunting.

What are you delivering?
Verification that what you say you are delivering is actually what you are delivering perhaps becomes the highest hurdle in identity preservation of GE corn. Presently the tests for the various genetic events require expensive sophisticated lab work. There are efforts to produce more economical kits for testing at the farm or elevator level. However, for this fall the only kits available for corn detect EU-approved Bt events. There are no quick tests yet available for Roundup Ready, Liberty Link or other Bt events. The other problem is that these test strips may use a different tolerance level than that imposed by the end user or purchaser of the corn and thus be proven invalid. The future will no doubt bring additional testing abilities to verify corn identity.

Towards 2000
Here are two suggestions for preparing for future developments in the growing and marketing of corn.

  1. Start now to select hybrids which are your top performers in each of three categories: non GE, GE (unrestricted markets) and GE (restricted markets).
  2. Consider which fields and farms are the most easily isolated, to reduce cross-pollination concerns. Target these for your non-GE or GE unrestricted market hybrids. If you have not already done so, start an accurate field mapping system.

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