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FAQs Regarding the Production of Transgenic Crops

Preplant 2000 Update [Updated: April 14, 2000]

Legal | Marketing | Production


The transgenic crop debate has created many new issues for production agriculture. Most are not unique to transgenic crops, they are just the beginning of differentiated markets based on a wide range of new traits.

The Iowa Grain Quality Initiative has assembled this question/answer checklist to help you with planting decisions. Look for more updates and information throughout the 2000 season. For more general background, see GMO Information at this site.


by Neil Harl

* My neighbor has told me informally that the intention is to plant non-GMO corn hybrids all the way along our one-half mile boundary. At the moment, I am planning on planting GMO hybrids along at least half the boundary. Should I be concerned about pollen drift?

To date, there has not been a case of pollen drift involving GMO corn litigated to a court of record. However, situations which are comparable in some respects have been litigated, with the creator of the offensive condition held liable. That has been the outcome with cases based on—(1) nuisance claims involving smoke, fumes, odors, noise and danger; (2) trespass claims where fumes from a leaking tank drifted across a road and killed a vegetable crop; (3) herbicide drift. It is not clear what theory will emerge and how successful it will be in pollen drift cases.

Our suggestion is to discuss the situation with the neighbor and try to work out a buffer arrangement.

* Could I be liable if I sell GMO corn to the elevator knowing that the grain is headed for export to the European Union even though I made no specific representations about the crop?

An implied warranty of fitness is imposed on sellers who are considered to be merchants if the seller knows the purpose for which the crop is to be used and the buyer is relying on the seller’s skill in judgment to provide suitable goods. The warranty or promise is that the commodity will be suitable for the purpose for which it is intended. Farmers in nearly half of the states are considered to be merchants with the trend in that direction.

Implied warranties of fitness can be disclaimed by conspicuous statements in writing.

* My elevator has asked me to sign a form stating that the corn I am selling has not been genetically modified. Should I sign the form?

Low levels of genetically modified germplasm are not unusual in non-GMO loads of grain. The seed, even though represented to be non-GMO, may have contained low levels of GMO germplasm and contamination could have occurred in planting, harvesting, transporting and storing the crop. It is generally unwise to state that a crop has not been genetically modified unless you are confident you can back up such a statement.

* I manage a small country elevator with one set of facilities (drop pit, augers) but with three sizable storage structures. This fall, I plan to sample each load and test the samples within a few hours of purchase. Is this adequate protection?

The problem is that, unless the test can be completed before the load is dumped, you may discover that grain dumped in a non-GMO structure actually contained unacceptably high levels of genetic modification. Thus, you may have contaminated a bin of non-GMO grain.

Where testing is not possible before grain is unloaded, you may wish to consider using the Uniform Certification Procedure discussed at

* My elevator assures me that there will be no problem in accepting approved varieties of every GMO crop this fall at harvest. Should I be concerned?

The question is whether competitive opportunities for sale without a discount will be available when the crop is sold, presumably some time during the marketing year. If possible, it would be well to obtain a commitment in writing that the crop will be purchased without discount any time during the marketing year.

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by Roger Ginder and Robert Wisner

* I have heard that premiums are being offered for non-GMO grain, but no elevator in my areas offers one.

Premiums may not be offered in all areas. Premiums are most likely to be offered when grain bound for export or processors who wish to certify non-GMO co-products to foreign or domestic markets.

* What areas are getting premiums?

Premiums are not assured in any area, but currently areas near the river export terminals and some processing plants are more likely to offer premiums.

* Am I likely to be able to market non-GMO crops directly from the field for a premium at harvest?

That may vary from buyer to buyer, but in most cases your best opportunity to find markets for non-GMO crops is likely to be after harvest. Many elevators are not currently set up to segregate crops by genetic origin at harvest.

* Will I be able to market GMO corn and soybeans without a discount?

At this time, major grain exporters and processors have announced that they are currently buying approved GMO hybrids and varieties in the cash market at no discount. Most have announced that they will write forward contracts for future delivery of biotech grain. These contracts are being offered for dates up to the end of Calendar 2000. Some have stated that they will assist producers who deliver unapproved GMO grain to move it into acceptable channels. Since channeling programs for unapproved GMO hybrids may differ, it would be helpful to ask how such assistance will occur.

* Does this mean that there will be no discount on 1999 or 2000 crop?

Not necessarily. Grain can be sold for cash today or for future delivery if it is contracted. Grain companies cannot guarantee that there will be no discounts in the future unless a contract is written and risk management is possible.

* Why won't grain companies and processors write contracts beyond 2000?

Risk management and hedging become very difficult beyond that point.

* Is there a marketing risk if I plant GMO corn and soybeans?

Some markets are currently not accessible with GMO grain. In particular, EC food markets and food markets in some far eastern markets. About 80% of corn utilization and soymeal utilization is for feeding. These markets are currently accessible to GMO grains in the U.S. and some export markets.

* Can I avoid risk by planting non-GMO seeds?

Non-GMO grains would carry reduced risk against market changes and new policies, however for non-GMO grain to be priced differently from GMO, it must usually be identity preserved. This typically involves extra costs and management effort. Unless a contract is written, there is no assurance that the producer will receive a premium at all or (if he or she does receive a premium) that it will cover these costs.

* Is there any way to reduce the risk of planting non-GMO for a premium?

Producers who think there is a possibility that premiums will be offered later in the growing season can plant non-GMO seed, clean out the planter, and isolate the field. These represent a small proportion of the costs associated with the identity preservation of grain. If an opportunity presents itself over the growing season, these producers will be in position to take advantage of it.

* What paperwork and testing may be required if I have a market for non-GMO crops?

Exact requirements may vary with the buyer. Be prepared for documentation of details on the seed you planted, including variety, where obtained, where planted, and lot numbers, and that you have taken at least normal care to clean bins and equipment. Also, expect testing or sample retention for GMOs at the point of sale.

* How can I handle the risk of cross pollenation from neighboring fields?

This risk is mainly for corn, and is one that cannot be completely eliminated. You may want to contact neighbors to find out what type of corn they will be planting in fields bordering yours. Also, check with agronomists to determine how far into your field there is a high risk of cross pollenation, and plan to harvest and feed or market this portion of the crop as GMO corn if it borders a GMO corn field.

* If I have a market for non-GMO corn or soybeans, will I have risks of getting a price discount if one or more loads does not measure up to required standards?

That may vary from one buyer to another. In the Eastern Corn Belt last winter, some buyers merely bought the disqualifying load at the GMO price, with no premium and no penalty. At least one major buyer in that area reportedly had a sizable penalty for each load that did not meet standards.

* Will it be important to let my grain buyer know if I have planted GMO corn varieties that are not approved for export to the European Union?

It could become more important to do this in the year ahead. The EU is by far the largest market for corn gluten products produced by the U.S. corn processing industry, and processors will not want to risk losing that very important market. Prospects for the EU to approve currently unapproved varieties look to be quite limited.

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by Dale Farnham

* I plan to plant only conventional hybrids and varieties on my farm; however, my neighbor plants a mix of conventional and transgenic crops. What is the potential for cross-pollination between my neighbor’s crops and mine?

If the crop in question is soybean, it’s a fairly safe bet that there will be no cross-pollination. The soybean plant produces a perfect flower (each flower contains both male and female reproductive structures) and is self-pollinated. There is little chance of cross-pollination in soybean.

If the crop in question is corn, chances for cross-pollination increase considerably (the corn plant is largely self-pollinated, also, however a certain degree of cross-pollination is common in all corn fields). The corn plant produces separate flowers for the male and female reproductive structures (male flower, or tassel, at the top of the plant and the female flower, or ear, located midway up the stalk). An average corn plant will produce between two million and five million pollen grains. An average ear will produce 750 to 1,000 ovules (and silks). That means that there are approximately 2,000 to 5,000 pollen grains produced for each silk.

Pollen is shed from the tassel and falls onto the silks of the ear, a distance of approximately three to five feet. Obviously, not all of the pollen will fall directly onto an awaiting silk. Some of the pollen will be picked up and transported by the wind and may pollinate silks on neighboring plants, some will fall onto the leaves, some will be picked up and carried away by insects or birds, and some will fall onto the ground. The distance that pollen can be carried on the wind is the real question.

* How far will pollen travel on the wind?

Past studies have shown that the bulk of a corn plant’s pollen will fall within a 20-foot radius of the plant. However, some may be carried much farther, perhaps up to a quarter of a mile or farther.

It is important to remember, however, that pollen shed is not a continuous process. It turns on and off in response to the environmental conditions at the time. Thus, very little, if any, pollen is being shed on rainy days, on windy days, on extremely hot days, or on extremely cool days. In addition, the average life of a pollen grain is only about 20 minutes, so it needs to do its work quickly before it loses its viability.

* What would be an appropriate separation distance between the conventional and transgenic crops to avoid potential cross-pollination?

The seed industry uses a separation distance of 660 feet (40 rods) for seed fields by convention. There is nothing magical about this distance, however. Obviously, the greater the distance, the less likely the chance for cross-pollination.

* What appropriate steps should be taken to reduce the chances of cross-pollination from neighboring fields?

Begin by talking with your neighbor(s). Find out what hybrids are intended to be planted in each field and design a layout that will reduce the possibility of cross-pollination. Also, consider how each field lies with regard to the prevailing winds.

Appropriate buffer strips (non-transgenic corn hybrid or an alternate crop such as soybean or forage) may need to be factored into the field layout. At harvest time, rows directly adjacent to the neighbor’s field may need to be harvested separately and marketed or utilized differently, perhaps fed on-farm or sold to a local feed mill.

* Are there other preventive measures that may help reduce the chances of contamination or cross-pollination?

Contamination can occur at any of a variety of points throughout the production and marketing channels, from the seed provider to the end-user. Thus, cleanliness and identity preservation will be critical factors in keeping contamination to a minimum.

To begin, prepare field plans and designate where specific transgenic and non-transgenic crops will be grown. Draw detailed field maps that show the location of each hybrid or variety. Design the plan so all transgenic hybrids or varieties are planted either first or last, thus reducing the amount of time necessary to clean out the planter.

Take the time to adequately clean the seed hoppers and metering mechanisms of the planter. A single kernel of corn seed that is left in the planter has the potential of producing several thousand kernels of unwanted, contaminated grain. Retain tags from seed bags for each hybrid or variety planted. At harvest time, harvest transgenic and non-transgenic crops in the same manner in which they were planted – one at a time – to reduce the amount of time required to clean the combine and transporting equipment. Rely on your maps to help keep the different types of grain segregated and identity preserved.