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Avoiding GMO contamination in corn

 
pollinator
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Location: SE Indiana
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I remember when I first wanted to grow and save seed from corn, I was hesitant to do so because of possible contamination from GMO. Lots of writing indicates it might not be possible at all because of the giant fields of GMO corn and the fact that corn pollen is windblown. While it certainly is an issue to always be aware of, I've come to realize that with some effort it is possible to protect your corn from GMO.

The first step if it's possible for you, is location.  Most folks out west, along the coast or in the mountains have an advantage as the giant factory fields are east and upwind of there. My location in Indiana is less ideal in that respect but still, nicely isolated from the giant fields even in my own state. I'm in the hilly wooded region along the Ohio River and miles away from the large fields north and west of me. I'm surrounded by a four-thousand-acre state owned hunting preserve and many thousands of more acres of wooded hills.

Second, or maybe tied for first is being careful in sourcing seed. Reputable sources such as Baker Creek, Southern Exposure and others are careful to offer only non-contaminated seed. Many others will advertise their seed as non-GMO but unless they detail their procedures for guaranteeing that, I like to follow it up with communication, asking what those procedures are.  Are they careful about their growers? Do they do routine genetic testing?  

Third and extremely effective is timing. That is planting you corn so that it flowers either before or after any other corn in your neighborhood. Now of course that is a little tricky. You need to know what other corn might be growing around you and have a general idea of its maturity time and how that compares to the corn you're growing. Unless the possible source of contamination is a big patch and or right next-door, chances are fairly low anyway but if you time it, so they don't flower at the same time, you eliminate the danger entirety.

I take the timing aspect a bit further by selecting and breeding my corn for short maturity and cold tolerance. This allows me to plant my corn well before the big fields, even though they are many miles away. My corn is up a few inches before the factory fields are even planted. Adding in the short maturity allows me to have ears on the way to maturing seed before the factory fields have even bloomed. On the opposite end, for example if a weather event ruins my early crop, I can replant and have mine bloom well after theirs is done.

I guess I'm a little extra paranoid because I have on occasion even resorted to laboratory testing. You want to avoid that if you can because it's not cheap. They need a minimum of 100 kernels and while you can send 100 from your whole crop that isn't really a good test. For a good test, 100 kernels from each individual ear are needed. I have only done that a few times when I had acquired a particularly interesting ear without knowing for sure of its origin.

A cheat on testing is to do it yourself with a little bit of the wicked chemical. Now I would not actually, myself, spend one thin penny on acquiring that stuff but I know people who do. On one occasion I was given a pretty much empty spray bottle of it to use for a test I wanted to do. There wasn't even enough in it to spray, I had to add some water. I had never seen it up close in action before and was kind of shocked at what it did and more so at how fast it did it. Wicked is barely an adequate descriptor for this stuff. The photo below is of what were some perfectly healthy and beautiful corn starts approximately 1/2 hour after a light spraying of the diluted, home use version. *Note, there are other GMO types that the spray test would not reveal.

GMO-test.jpg
Murdered Corn
Murdered Corn
 
steward
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Another easy way to detect GMO contamination is to only grow sweet corn. If field corn pollen fertilizes a kernel, then the kernel will turn into a flour kernel. If a gardener was growing only sweet corn, that would be a good indicator of how much pollen is drifting in from elsewhere.

When I sent corn seed to Baker Creek, they asked for 10,000 kernels, because their testing protocols are sensitive enough to detect one GMO seed in ten thousand. They also indicated that they are doing hand pollination of some varieties of corn in order to minimize contamination from wind blown pollen.

flour-on-sweet_480.jpg
One off-type kernel on sweet corn
One off-type kernel on sweet corn
 
Mark Reed
pollinator
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Location: SE Indiana
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I'm pretty sure that all of the factory corn also has yellow endosperm which is part of the reason I opted to select for white in my corn. Any contamination would show up pretty easily. But that's out the window when I decided to go for the colored pericarp. I could still see it on any light-colored ears but maybe not on the dark ones. And I got some orange from carotene going on too, I'm just going to ride with that, at least for now.  

My biggest worry over contamination is with the sweet corn that the woman insists I grow each year. It's not a big issue though as long as I get to choose the variety, planting date and location and she's fine with that, as long as she has some. If a stray sweet pollen drifts in once in a while, it's not that big an issue. Especially since as far as stalk strength, disease resistance and things like that I think some of those sweet corns probably have some pretty good ancestors, and sweet kernels are easy to see too.

Couple years ago, I had sweet corn in one garden, my corn in the other, about 250 feet apart. I planted two or three of each in one of the woman's flower gardens about 1/2 way between and detasseled them, not a single kernel formed on those plants.

I'm not going to worry about GMO anymore, I'm far enough separated from the factory fields, my corn flowers much earlier and I've been really careful in sourcing seeds.  


 
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