Breeding and testing corn for organic farmers that combines high N efficiency, superior nutritional value, and cross incompatibility.


Walter Goldstein
Mandaamin Institute
Elkhorn, Wisconsin

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Corn presently produces more grain than any other single cereal in the World. It is also the major cereal crop for both conventional and organic farmers in the Midwest (Anon. 2016). Because of consolidation of the seed industry and the predominance of transgenic, genetically engineered (GE) corn, the diversity of elite corn cultivars for organic seed companies and farmers in the USA has decreased. GE contamination has become widespread and has polluted the entire food chain. At the same time, the nutritional value of the grain has decreased because commercial breeding focused mainly on higher yields.

Organic farmers need corn varieties that are well-adapted to organic conditions, produce high yields, and provide better nutritional quality and ecological services. That corn should be easy to grow without a lot of inputs, be efficient at obtaining nitrogen (N) and other nutrients from soil with little fertilization. It should be free of GE contamination and biologically cross incompatible with GE corn.

The Mandaamin Institute has been developing varieties to combine these characteristics. The results should refine and re-define what corn is for organic farmers.

The grain of the Mandaamin varieties possess higher protein, protein quality, and carotenoid content than conventionally bred corn. Therefore, those varieties should meet the methionine needs of organic dairy and poultry producers and set a new standard for egg yolk and meat color in poultry.

The Institute selected corn to grow well under N limited conditions by being better at extracting N from soil organic matter. But it also bred corn that can interact with bacteria and obtain N from soil or N2 from air. Nitrogen efficiency should reduce the need for nitrogenous fertilizers for organic and conventional farmers.

The Institute is also developing cultivars with naturally occurring genetic systems that prevent pollination from GE corn by not permitting pollen tube growth on silks.

Our big challenge has been combining these traits and bringing yield levels up so that the cultivars that have them are competitive. Adequate yield is necessary if seed companies will offer them and farmers will grow them. The Mandaamin Institute is a small non-governmental organization with a devoted team that are effectively tackling this problem. Therefore, we greatly appreciate the financial assistance from the Ceres Trust. That help has enabled considerable progress in breeding the kind of corn the World needs for positive change.

The new website from the Ceres Trust shows us true depth of interest and understanding of our current world situation and the direction that help must come from. In light of that information, we will depart from the normal, short, factual report of results to give a more in-depth explanation of what we have been doing with funding from the Ceres Trust and others. This report to the Ceres Trust will describe the larger-scope background of the problems that we are tackling, why they are important, and then our approach to resolving the problems. After providing this context, the work we did with the financial help of the Ceres Trust and other organizations will be described. We will interpret and discuss our results and our progress, and outline future steps that need to be taken to bring the work forward.

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