Do GMO farms ‘contaminate’ neighboring crops? A farmer’s view of co-existence

Sticky silk catches airborne pollen as it blows by.

A rash of anti-GMO articles recently came across my newsfeed. These things come in waves, but rarely vary in terms of the claims made against biotechnology, the companies that are doing the research or the farmers who have made the choice to plant gm-seed.

In almost every instance GMO was referred to as poison, chemicals or just plain evil. The pictures accompanying these posts featured an apple or an ear of corn being injected by a syringe; with what I don’t know because that isn’t how a genetically modified organism is created.

In fact, as I was reading one rant about dark underground labs and mad scientists, I looked out at our cornfield. We raise corn, soybeans and seed corn on our farm. My husband is the seventh generation of his family to farm.

Our specialty crop is seed corn, and we grow a variety of hybrids for Wyffels Hybrids, a regional family-owned company. Growing seed corn (the seed that farmers will purchase to plant the following year) whether genetically modified or not, is a complex process.

Our first priority is working with our neighbors and learning what will they be planting in adjacent fields. Cross-pollination can occur, whether you are an organic or conventional farmer or plant GM seeds. It’s not “contamination”; it’s a fact of modern farming. Agriculture with and without genetic engineering must coexist side by side.

The right measures need to be taken so that GM pollen won’t drift into other fields and fertilize conventional cultivars. We are required to plant seed corn in isolation in order to lessen the likelihood of pollen from other fields entering ours or ours entering another field. The integrity of the hybrid and the traits of that hybrid depend upon this.

On the north and east sides of our seed fields, we put 220 feet between the seed corn and the next crop. On the south and west sides, 330 feet. Why the difference? Prevailing winds during the time of pollination have typically been out of the south and west. We take in to account roadways, creeks, ditches, and water ways and will often plant a strip of soybeans or another crop around the seed corn in order to achieve the proper setbacks. Inside that isolation, we also plant 60 feet of male row to ensure during pollination the field is flooded with the “right” kind of pollen.

Seed cornfields are planted with male and female rows, in a one/four or two/four pattern (one male row to every four female, etc.). The pollen from the tassels on the male plants is used to pollinate the silks on the female plants, creating a hybrid seed.

Female plants are de-tasseled when the silks are ready to accept pollen because we want the traits from the male plant to pollinate the female. De-tasseling involves first cutting the tops from the plants and then walking the fields and hand-pulling any remaining tassels.

As soon as pollination is complete, the male rows are destroyed before the kernels on their ear of corn become viable. Destroying them eliminates the threat of volunteer corn sprouting in the field the next year, and eliminates a need to apply additional herbicide.

Seed corn is not dried in a field like commercial corn. We harvest seed corn on the ear and need as many kernels as possible to stay on the cob. Kernels with more moisture are likely to stay on the ear longer. Seed companies also want to preserve the integrity of the germ and choose to dry the kernels slowly in their plants, rather than subject them to the whims of Mother Nature.

Planting and harvesting seed corn is all about cleanliness. When planting, we scour the planters between fields lest a seed from one hybrid makes it into another field. The same precautions are taken during harvest. The pickers are kernel-cleaned. Any kernels not on an ear are destroyed.

The same care is taken raising non-GM seed corn or GM-seed corn. In both cases it is the preservation of certain traits that are important to the farmers buying the seed: No labs, no white coats, no masks, just soil, water, sun and help from a farmer.

Katie Pratt and her husband farm raise corn, soybeans seed corn and farm kids in Illinois. She serves as the county’s ag literacy coordinator with the Ag in the Classroom program, volunteers with the Illinois Farm Families program and advocates for a respectful farm/food dialogue at her blog at Rural Route 2: Life & Times of an Illinois Farm Girl; on Facebook; and at @KatiePratt4 on Twitter. 

  • Larkin Curtis Hannah

    Excellent story told by an expert.

  • Janice Rickert Mueller

    This brought back memories. My father raised Pioneer hybrid seed corn and my brother does now. As a teenager de-tasseling was a summer job my friends and I did. There was no cutting tassels back then; they were all pulled by hand.

  • Beth Henggeler

    Great job explaining the process Katie! It takes procedural planning to accomplish but what on a farm doesn’t?

  • RobertWager

    Thank you. the entire GE debate needs more farmers in it.

    • hyperzombie

      What, do you mean that flying yogic instructors are not important in the discussion?

      • And don’t forget urban organic activists who’ve never worked a day on a farm in their lives.

        • copperfoxf5

          I have a question for you Mr. Popoff. You’re an organic farmer, yes? What do you think the potential benefit would be if the definition of “organic” farming did not prohibit the use of genetic engineering or GMO’s? Basically, who (farmers, consumers, etc.) do you think would benefit and why if there wasn’t that restriction in place? Roundup Ready crops aside, of course. I ask because I think it ridiculous that transgenics is unacceptable, but mutagenesis and allopolyploidization is a-OK. It’s discrimination of a single method, really. I’ve seen other posts on other articles, and you don’t seem swayed by anti-GMO sentiment.

          • That’s a great question copperfoxf5, one which should be asked of former President Bill Clinton who tried to convince organic stakeholders to consider leaving the door open to GMOs on a case-by-case basis. To answer your question, I think Clinton was right.

    • copperfoxf5

      There are farmers in it, but like they do with scientists (except David Suzuki, of course), their word is largely disregarded in favor of sensationalism. And if I understand correctly, Mischa Popoff and hyperzombie here are farmers too. I’m not. I’m an ex-biochemist turned medical laboratory scientist.

      If you’re on facebook, you should check out the page ‘The Truth About Trade and Technology.’ It’s mostly farm-folk. And state farm bureaus like Oregon’s, Iowa’s, Texas’, and others all have commentary about the benefits of biotechnology. I haven’t found a negative comment or opinion concerning GMOs on any state farm bureau’s page.

  • I’m from Iowa, so everybody assumes that I know everything there is to know about corn. I learned a great deal about producing hybrid seed corn from your article. I hope that you contribute to the ongoing discussions within the USDA, APHIS, Biotechnology Regulatory Services about isolation distances.