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Discuss Pollen Over Coffee?

As a corn producer, now that you have ordered your seed and are making planting plans, there is one more thing you might want to consider – discussing your plans with your farming neighbors. With the advent of genetically engineered (sometimes called “GMO,” for Genetically Modified Organism) corn and the growth of the markets for certified organic grains, or non-GMO grain, farmers” corn planting decisions may impact those of their neighbors, because of pollen drift.

Randy Hughes, a farmer who produces blue, white and yellow corn organically in Janesville, Wis., attended a detailed two-day conference on co-existence of three different modes of crop production, held in Minneapolis in November 2001. He wishes more producers would try discussing their planting plans. “I”ve done well with my neighbors,” Hughes reports. “Every year I write them a letter, and they”ve been very good about it.”

Producers, state officials, university specialists and seed company representatives from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa met under a USDA grant to foster understanding of the social, economic and ethical impacts of biotechnology.

Hughes has long-term perspective on pollen drift, because with blue corn or white corn, the results of pollen drift show up right away while the combine is running down the rows. He notes that pollination from stray GMO pollen is harder to detect.

“Before, (the question of what are you planting) never got asked at all in most situations,” Hughes concedes. “But my neighbors have been very decent. You don”t know if by notifying your neighbor of your intent to plant GMO corn you”re staving off a lawsuit, because to my knowledge a precedent hasn”t been set. But to me, if my neighbor has been a good actor and planted a buffer – I don”t know how much more you could ask him to do.”

The standard for separating varieties to avoid pollen drift in seed corn production has always been 660 feet, and the same distance applies to other corn pollen. Most corn pollen falls within 50 feet of the plant it comes from, but the longer distances have been good enough to prevent cross pollination in seed production. However, with sensitive testing for what are called “GMO events,” or the presence of an introduced protein, a small amount of pollen could drift further and cause problems. A zero tolerance for the presence of GMO corn by some organic and non-GMO shippers and customers makes the issue more difficult.

The clearest conclusion to emerge from the Minneapolis conference was that neighbor-to-neighbor communication was most valuable and easiest change to accomplish. Other recommendations included:

o assure “identity preservation” throughout the corn production cycle, from seed production to elevators and shipping points;
o establish some degree of tolerance of biotech “events” in non-GMO and organic corn;
o improve risk management (insurance) for producers with something to lose from pollen drift, and
o make more accurate tests for presence of GMO events available.

An organic producer might want to tell his non-organic producing neighbors that he is shooting for organic premiums for all or some of his crops. The nearby GMO producer may then cooperate to avoid disputes. Seed companies are encouraging their GMO seed customers to plant non-GMO buffers and refuge acres, and GMO producers might put those refuges between their crops and those of the organic producer. Similar motivations might apply to producers who intend to market corn directly into export channels that exclude the presence of “GMO events.”

A GMO producer might want to notify his organic or non-GMO neighbors of his planting intentions to avoid litigation or just plain anger which could come about if some of “his” GMO pollen drifted and caused a reduction in premiums when the corn was sold.

Notification could get complicated. “It”s just another phone call and a hassle,” Hughes relates. To notify all neighboring producers could require some detailed research, since even looking at a recent plat map will not reveal who actually makes planting decisions on individual parcels of land.

One suggestion at the conference was that national, state or regional databases of planting intentions could be established, with GPS locations for each field recorded and made available over the Internet. More likely, groups of producers, meeting over coffee this February and March, could resolve issues locally.

Possibly local governmental or non-governmental organizations could help facilitate this communication. County Extension agents, town boards, local farm organization or grower groups, local churches or ministers, or any other type of local organization could facilitate communication about planting intentions, post maps, or moderate discussions.