Confusion About Corn Hybrids: "Approved for Export?"

April 23, 1999
The announcement several weeks ago by major corn processors that they will not accept corn with genetic modifications not approved by the European Union has cast a great cloud of confusion over many corn producers. While seed companies are the likely target for most questions about this, we'll try here to give the current picture as we understand it.

First, although there are genes "events" incorporated in some hybrids that are not approved for sale in the EU, all commercially available hybrids are approved to grow and to use for feed and processing in the United States. The concern of the processors has partly to do with the fact that they market processed products such as corn gluten feed to the EU, and so cannot have unapproved hybrids in what they process for that market. But any producer who feeds all of the corn he or she produces need have no concern whatsoever about the current picture.

Understanding which of the genetically modified corn hybrids are not yet approved is the key to knowing what action to take. Current estimates are that about 7 percent of the corn seed now in farmers' hands for planting is not approved for export to EU. This list of "events" that are not approved includes the following:

    1. All Roundup Ready corn hybrids. The source of this herbicide resistance is known as MonGA 21, but most people only need to know that if a hybrid is cleared for use of Roundup directly on the crop, it is not cleared for export to Europe.

    2. The Bt known as "Bt Xtra," which contains the DeKalb event known as DBT 418. DeKalb hybrids with this event are designated BTX. This event codes for a Bt known as Cry1A(c). It has been used for several years in the United States, but is not yet approved for export to the EU.

    3. The DeKalb event known as DLL 25, which is their version of Liberty tolerance. DeKalb designates as GR (for glufosinate resistance) their hybrids that have it.

    4. The Garst hybrids that they designate as BLT (Bt/LL/IT), or Bt/LL, or their LL hybrids. The Garst Bt is known as event CBH-351, and codes for a Bt known as Cry9C, which is not approved.

    5. Hybrids that contain the combination, or "stack," of the two events Mon 810, which is a widely used Monsanto Bt, and T-25, which is a widely-used Liberty-Link event. Both of these events are approved for export to the EU individually, but the combination is not. There may be a number of companies with this combination in some of their hybrids, but so far I have seen only Pioneer Hi-Bred list hybrids that have it. Their hybrids not approved for export to the EU include 33Y11, 34T14, and 38B22 (this last one is very early in maturity and would not normally be grown in Illinois).

    6. Golden Harvest indicates that two of their hybrids2404LL and 2553LLare not approved. These may have a different Liberty-Link event than any mentioned above.

The information on this list was gathered from news reports and from company web sites. It is almost certainly not complete, and it could change over time. With all of the current publicity, it is wise to check with seed companies if there is any doubt about whether particular hybrids are approved or not.

What should producers do if they have seed on hand for hybrids not approved for export to the EU? The answer to this is somewhat complicated, but has much to do with the way in which the producers normally use the corn they produce. If all of the corn is fed to livestock locally, either by the producer or by someone who buys directly from the producer, then no action is warranted. In most cases, only some part of a producer's acreage will be planted to "unapproved" hybrids. In this case, those hybrids should be the first to be made into silage or otherwise stored for feeding, and only approved hybrids should be taken to the elevator or stored for later sale to the elevator.

If a producer delivers all of his corn to an elevator, then the issue of approval for export to the EU depends on what the elevator does with the corn it purchases. With an average of about 10 delivery points per county in Illinois, most producers can deliver corn--or at least that corn from unapproved hybrids--to elevators that state that they will accept this type of corn. Elevators that will accept this type of corn will in some cases only sell it as feed for use in the United States. Such corn can also be exported to most Asian countries, which represent a much larger fraction of the export market than does Europe; one figure I saw indicated that less than 2 percent of the unprocessed corn exported from the United States goes to the EU.

Where the only practical delivery point for a producer is to a river terminal for export, to a terminal that delivers corn for processing (e.g., to A.E. Staley or to ADM in Decatur), or directly to a processor from the farm, then it may be prudent to simply avoid production of unapproved hybrids. The decision to turn corn seed back in exchange for approved hybrids should not be made lightly, especially if it means giving up yield protection that was important enough to spend extra for when the genetically modified hybrid was purchased in the first place. On the other hand, there is a good supply of seed available this spring, and many of the non­genetically modified hybrids are outstanding in yield potential and general agronomics; remember that many genetically modified hybrids were produced by backcrossing onto hybrids that are now several years old. Nonetheless, selection of replacement hybrids, if that is deemed necessary, should be done as carefully as time permits. It may in some cases be better to keep an unapproved hybrid and to find an alternative market than to substitute a substandard one, or one that you know nothing about.

What will happen if the system of keeping unapproved hybrids out of the export channels or away from processors doesn't work perfectly? While there were not as many unapproved hybrids available in 1998, the policy of the processors and exporters is no different this year than it was last year; they simply asked farmers not to deliver these, and I heard of no instances where this system was reported to have failed. One new development this year is the very recent appearance of test kits for some of the genetic modifications. These will be simple to use with either grain or plant material, and will give readings quickly. The ones I have heard about so far detect approved Bt events and thus won't be of much help to prevent the entry of unapproved hybrids. Development of new kits to find unapproved hybrids may well happen quickly, though, and such tests may become available for use at delivery points. In short, it is not a good idea to plan to "sneak" unapproved corn into places that have said they won't take it.

Even if no unapproved corn is delivered to places that will not accept it, the fact that pollen moves from one field to another means that even corn without any genetic modification (which is still on the majority of corn acres in the United States) may well contain some kernels with genes that are not approved. For example, a field that is right next to a Roundup Ready field will probably contain some kernels pollinated with pollen from the RR field. Such kernels will carry the RR gene, and even though the percentage of such kernels in the approved field is very low, the very sensitive tests for the presence of such genes could be positive. This not only is a problem for unapproved hybrids for export to the EU this year, but is becoming an issue for organic and other "GMO-free" corn that is being sold as such. Corn pollen blows around, and when there is a sensitive test, unexpected things will be found as genetically modified hybrids continue to spread.

Dealing with corn hybrids not approved for export to the EU will probably be sorted out reasonably well, but it should be taken seriously by all who sell corn seed, produce corn, or buy corn in Illinois and the United States. Check with your seed company if you have any concerns, and be sure to check with the place where you sell corn to see what their policy is.--Emerson D. Nafziger

Author: Emerson Nafziger