The same science that protects your corn from weeds and insects may limit your markets for its grain this fall. The European Union's (EU) refusal to approve some bioengineered corn hybrids has grain companies skittish about accepting grain from genetically modified (GM) plants.
"The EU appears to have drawn a line in the sand and I don't think we'll see any movement in regard to tolerance by harvest," says Scott McFarland, industry relations director for the National Corn Growers Association.
Soybeans, on the other hand, face no restrictions in the EU markets, according to Jim Hershey, American Soybean Association division director for Europe. "Farmers can be very secure in the knowledge that GM soybeans have the same commodity value of any other soybeans," he says.
Large grain processors like ADM and A.E. Staley announced early in the season that they won't accept unapproved GM corn at their processing plants that serve the export market. ADM will accept GM corn at its plants that serve domestic markets. ConAgra, however, will accept and segregate GM corn from standard corn.
As a result, country elevators will need to keep GM corn separate from non-GM corn to protect their markets. Some grain elevators likely won't be accepting GM corn at harvest and farmers will need to store their grain on farm, separate from the rest of their crop, for later delivery.
"It will particularly affect farmers in the Illinois River corridor where a large volume of grain goes to export and corn processing," says McFarland. "We need to stress it's the individual grower's responsibility to make sure GM corn stays in domestic channels."
"We need to be smart about this as an elevator. Roughly 2-4% of the corn crop in east-central Illinois is non-approved GM hybrids. If we say we aren't going to take GM corn, we're going to get it anyway," says Larry Wood, manager at The Andersons' Champaign, IL, facility.
"Everybody will be on the honor system. If growers have unapproved GM corn we just ask that they notify us when they bring it in," Wood says. "We unload 60 trucks an hour so there's no way, within reason, to test each load.
"We'll take it wet or dry. We'll segregate it but we won't discount it," he says. "The most important thing is that producers give us a fair shake so we can keep unapproved grain separate."
Many farmers returned their corn seed from unapproved hybrids and swapped it for other hybrids, according to Wood. Industry estimates peg the unapproved GM corn crop at roughly 5% of all the GM corn planted.
There is no space to segregate GM from non-GM grain at Hintzsche Grain & Feed, Inc., Maple Park, IL. "A lot of elevators are in the same situation. It takes a whole different receiving and drying system," says Glen Ludwig, grain manager at Hintzsche.
"We told our growers last spring if they planted non-approved GM hybrids they needed to be prepared to segregate it and store it at home, if the marketplace demands segregation this fall. Our elevator won't be able to segregate non-approved GM corn this harvest.
"We're incorporating language in our purchase contracts that obligates growers to tell us if they're bringing in GM corn," says Ludwig.
Earlier this summer the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) sent its members several suggestions to consider when writing grain contracts this fall. While not making a formal recommendation, NGFA listed three alternative paragraphs that deal with unapproved GM corn.
The least restrictive suggestion details the seller's obligation to tell the buyer what variety of corn is being delivered and states the seller may receive a discounted price for the grain if discounts exist at delivery. A more stringent alternative for grain companies to consider is a paragraph that states the seller can't deliver unapproved GM corn. The third option addresses only unapproved GM corn grown in 1999.
"Addressing these issues up front, we should help avoid misunderstandings and disputes over unapproved GM corn at the local delivery level," says Randy Gordon, vice president of communications at NGFA.
No matter what contract language is used, Hintzsche's Ludwig knows he'll have to rely on farmers' integrity for notification.
"I don't expect to have the ability to test. I don't know if the tests available commercially work or if I could afford or operationally do the testing during harvest," he says. "If I can't segregate it, why ask?"
Ludwig questions whether farmers themselves will always have the answer.
"Many times drivers delivering to our elevators don't know what varieties they're hauling," he says. "They'll need to do a better job of knowing what hybrids they plant in each field and keep track of the grain at harvest.
This year's harvest issue with GM corn is just the tip of a very big iceberg, believes Ludwig. "It's a loud wake-up call," he says. "As we look back at 1999, six to seven years from now, we're going to be saying, wow, were we naive."
Growers unsure about the status of the corn hybrids they planted should contact their dealer to determine if the GM hybrids have been approved for export to the EU. For a list of elevators, feed mills and feed processors that will accept unapproved GM corn, growers can call toll-free 800-833-5252 or 800-768-6387.
Also, in mid-July the American Seed Trade Association began a telephone survey of roughly 25,000 grain purchasers to create a data base listing who will accept unapproved GM corn. The information should be available on the group's Web site (www.amseed.org) before harvest.