In the summer of 2000, an ill wind blew onto David Vetter’s 280-acre farm in Marquette, Nebraska. The farm had been organic since the 1950s, and Vetter had been breeding his own corn seed in the field using traditional techniques. The idea was to protect his independence as he watched the seed industry rapidly consolidating into the hands of Monsanto and a few other “gene giants.” Then, in 2000, his seed tested positive for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “They killed us,” he says. “Ten years of work was gone just like that.”
In 2005 genetically engineered (GE) seed was planted on 52 percent of US corn acreage. However, thanks to wind-borne pollen and other contamination, the agricultural community now commonly accepts that no American corn is 100 percent free of GE material–not even if it’s certified organic.
The good news is that plant breeders might have a solution. It lies in a group of naturally occurring corn genes called GaS, which is bred into corn varieties using standard hybridization. With GaS, a plant will reject all pollen that doesn’t also have those genes. It could be a miraculous biological fence to keep out those privately owned GE genes. There’s just one hitch: It, too, is now privately owned.
As of April 2005, Hoegemeyer Hybrids, of Hooper, Nebraska, holds a patent for the use of GaS in hybrids and inbred lines of yellow dent corn–the kind that covers one-quarter of American farmland and anchors our entire agricultural economy. The company’s GaS seed, dubbed PuraMaize, is slated for US release in 2008 and has patents pending around the world.
Such patents have lately become a frustrating fact of life in the plant-breeding community, but what really stings about this one is that it probably shouldn’t have been issued. Researchers have known and written about GaS since the 1940s. It has been used in white and yellow corns, and employed in countless popcorn varieties to protect them from crossing with nearby field and sweet corns–to protect their “pop.” As one researcher put it, “I’d love to hear someone explain how Hoegemeyer’s use qualifies as new.”
Among those left frustrated is Margaret Smith, a professor and plant breeder at Cornell University. In 2002 Smith began breeding GaS into corn varieties in response to pleas from local organic growers for protection against pollen drift. As a public breeder, Smith’s job is to find out what farmers need, and try to provide it. But because of the patent, anyone who wants to use her GaS variety will need to comply with whatever licensing fees and royalties Hoegemeyer Hybrids requires.
As a result, smaller farmers like Vetter may find that PuraMaize is out of their reach. The university researchers and seed companies that smaller farmers rely on often have neither the staff to negotiate licensing agreements nor the money to pay them. The companies with the means to use the technology would tack the added costs onto the price of the seed, and possibly require a large minimum purchase, both of which could make it too expensive for Vetter. Or companies could simply decide that, for any number of reasons, producing seed that works for Vetter’s region is not profitable enough–so Vetter wouldn’t even be given the chance to buy it.