This Breeder is Working on 'Organic Ready' Corn That Blocks GMO Contamination | Civil Eats

This Breeder is Working on ‘Organic Ready’ Corn That Blocks GMO Contamination

For nearly 15 years, Frank Kutka has been working to save prevent genetically modified (GMO) corn from cross-pollinating with organic and other corn varieties. Kutka, a plant breeder, has been developing what he calls “Organic Ready” corn varieties that have the ability to prevent cross-pollination.

“We need corn that organic farmers can grow without fear of GMO contamination,” says Kutka, who is in the fourth year of a five-year breeding project funded by the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Gametophytic Incompatibility

Kutka faces a huge challenge. Each year US farmers plant GMO corn on millions of acres; 93 percent of this year’s corn crop is GMO. Corn cross-pollinates with other corn plants. Each plant produces millions of pollen grains that are carried by the wind to other corn plants where they pollinate the plant’s silks and produce kernels. The problem is that GMO corn can pass its modified genes or “transgenes” on during cross-pollination.

Kutka’s research focuses on naturally occurring traits found in popcorns and the ancient grain teosinte that make it difficult for GMO pollen to enter the corn silks, thus preventing cross-pollination. The trait is known as gametophytic incompatibility or Ga1S, and is not a new discovery, according to Kutka.

“The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in popcorn in the 1950s and then in white corn varieties in the 1970s. It’s not a perfect system, but it greatly reduces the risk of out-crossing,” he says.

Kutka is also working with another pollen block trait—Ga2S, which is found in teosinte, an ancestor of maize.

While this project began in 2011, Kutka has been working on pollen blocking traits since 2001 when he was a graduate student at Cornell University. Kutka calls the new corn varieties “Organic Ready” as a play on Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” GMO crops.

The Challenge of Cross-Pollination

GMOs are prohibited in organic production under the USDA National Organic Program, but there are no regulations in place to protect farmers against accidental contamination from the pollen of GM corn. Organic and non-GMO farmers have suffered economic losses when their corn tested positive for GMOs and was rejected by grain buyers. A recent survey of organic farmers from 17 states, predominantly in the Midwest, shows 67 percent planned to delay planting corn this year so their crops would pollinate later than their neighbors’ GM corn, at an average cost of $16,000. The problem is also impacting heirloom seed companies; Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has lost one-half of its heirloom varieties to GMO contamination.

That’s why Kutka feels a sense of urgency to his work. He hopes to release some seed varieties of open pollinated Organic Ready in 2015.

“I’m working on developing varieties that hopefully will work in a lot of different locations in the U.S.,” he says.

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Kutka is working with another corn breeder, Dave Christensen, to breed the pollen-blocking trait into a Painted Mountain Corn variety that grows in the harsh dry mountainous regions of the West. Another corn breeder, Major Goodman at North Carolina State University, is developing pollen-blocking organic corn varieties for Southern growing regions.

Another challenge for Kutka is that he is doing the breeding work part-time. He also works a “day job,” as a coordinator for the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society Farm Breeding Club.

Time is of the Essence

Organic Ready corn won’t be the first pollen-blocking corn variety on the market. Iowa-based Blue River Hybrids has been selling an organic corn hybrid variety called PuraMaize for the past three years. Similar to Organic Ready corn, PuraMaize contains the pollen-blocking Ga1S trait.

Tests on PuraMaize corn harvested in 2012 and 2013 found that it was effective in reducing cross-pollination and contamination from GM corn. Samples from both years’ harvest tested negative for GMOs “at the operational limit of 0.05 percent.”

Blue River Hybrids president Maury Johnson says the PuraMaize corn also produces yields that are competitive with other corn varieties.

PuraMaize is a patented trait that Blue River licensed from Nebraska-based Hogemeyer Hybrids, which was later purchased by Pioneer Hi-Bred. Kutka and other corn breeders such as Margaret Smith at Cornell University and Major Goodman have opposed the patent, saying the Ga1S trait has been used for decades.

Kutka wants other corn breeders and farmers to have ready access to his Organic Ready corn. Seeds will be released to the public along with short publications in the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter in order to prevent their being patented. “These seed releases are to encourage others to work with this trait and for organic farmers to grow as they wish,” he says.

Breeding pollen-blocking traits into corn is a process that takes time, and Kutka understands that time is of the essence.

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“There is a lot of work on the breeder’s side, but I really see this as the way we have to go,” he says. “I want to see corn remain a profitable part of organic farming.”


A version of this post appeared in the Organic and Non-GMO Report.

A version of this post appeared on The Organic & Non-GMO Report. – See more at:


A version of this post appeared on The Organic & Non-GMO Report. – See more at:

A version of this post appeared on The Organic & Non-GMO Report. – See more at:
A version of this post appeared on The Organic & Non-GMO Report. – See more at:

Ken Roseboro is editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, a monthly news magazine that focuses on threats posed by GM foods and the growing non-GMO food trend. He is also editor and publisher of The Non-GMO Sourcebook, a directory of suppliers of non-GMO seeds, grains, and ingredients. Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook. He is a member of the board of directors of the Iowa Organic Association. Ken appears in the new documentary film, GMO OMG. Read more >

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  1. Karen
    This is some of the best news I have heard all year! I hope that if they are successful, they will continue to work on other plants and vegetables to prevent GMO contamination in them as well!
  2. Keep up the good work! I won't eat corn unless it is organic. NO GE!
  3. Calvin
    Your work is appreciated!!
  4. kevin harrington
    Please continue to develop this strain of corn because I am really concerned about the quality of our food. I no longer eat anything with corn as an additive. I enjoy corn but will not eat anything genetically altered. Breeding is one thing but doing it on a genetic level is not acceptable.
  5. Mark
    Guys, call it what you like, but this IS genetic engineering. The traits they are talking about (Ga1S and Ga2S) are GENETIC traits that they are taking advantage of to fight against other genetic traits. smh
  6. Linda Fisk
    Mark, it is not the same as genetically modified, that is done in a lab by a scientist. Just because it shares the same word-genetic- and just because it is a genetic trait doesn't mean it is developed/made the same way. Look up GMO....there is e coli in GMO corn.....and they put it there.
  7. jon
    They arent genetically engineering the traits into the organic corn . They are using a process called selective breeding. The natural way
  8. fk
    Mark, please don't change definitions at your whim, it makes language useless. "Genetic traits" have been around since the beginning of "life" as we know it. "Cross breeding" is a tool that mates compatibles to try to produce a particular stable trait in their offspring. "Genetic engineering" or "genetic modification" is a laboratory procedure that inserts genetic material from a foreign species into the DNA of a host species, creating an unprecedented outcome. Kind of hubristic wouldn't you say? Quite different processes and deserving of a lingual distinction.
  9. Sandra
    when we think of GMO's and the genetic engineering that goes with it we are talking about taking a substance or DNA from something totally alien to this life form. This can be animals/plants etc. Cross breeding varieties of plants is totally different. NATURE crossbreeds all the time...however it does NOT bring in chemicals and twisted DNA to make things easier for us, arrogant humans. We need to outlaw GMO's as they are doing in Europe and burn the fields (as they are doing in Europe), as this is the only way to destroy the GMO strain. Did you know that if the wind shifts and pollen hits a neighbor's corn (or other crop) and it bares fruit...that fruit belongs to Monsanto...and that they can and do sue for the product...and they win!
  10. Sam
    You guys don't seem to have any idea what "genetic modification" is. It doesn't require a lab. FK, you are the one "changing definitions." Yours was never the correct definition. You say "genetic modification" but what you mean is "trans-genetic modification." And ever still, there's no reason to think this is inherently bad. You guys think that just because you lack sufficient scientific understanding of biology and chemistry. Your argument it basically the same as saying you won't eat salt because it is made of two highly dangerous chemicals.
  11. @sam - you got it wrong - salt is a natural molecule which can be used to isolate two highly dangerous chemicals.
    guys who want to make us trust their scientific understand always told us GM is safe and cannot cross the species - unfortunately history has proven it can do so and many independent researchers found in long term trials that GM food causes serious damages to the health of animals and humans - to support this madness it nothing else than faith based science.
  12. Tannim
    @Sam and @Mark: learn the difference between horizontal and vertical gene transfers and then get back to us when you know what you're talking about. This is selected breeding, which is definitely a vertical gene transfer. Just because a genetic trait is being bred in by that method doesn't make it GMO--there is far more to it than that, and your oversimplification exhibits a gross ignorance of the processes.
  13. Ashley Zappe
    Dear Pro GMO people-- Those of us who are wary of GMOs are not necessarily sentimental nature-lovers, or ignorant of science. There are very good rational arguments for sufficient testing and regulation of GMOs. GMOs are indeed a different process than hybridization, since they involve implanting genes from different species. While GMOs might turn out to be just fine, I personally will avoid them until unbiased science conclusively shows that they are fine, because I DO understand the scientific process.
  14. Good Morning Frank, Great to see some of your work. I had the opportunity to hear you speak and it was wonderful to have the chance to talk with you for short time. I met you at the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network with the Shakopee, MN couple years back. At this time in Oneida , Wi we are growing our traditional White Corn. I am talking with Zach about supplying some Oneida White corn for this project. Keep up the good work.


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