Scientists Accelerate Research on the Creation of Productive Organic Corn

USDA Organic Research and Development Initiative (OREI) regular new $2 million grant went to University of Illinois Scientists for developing improved corn seeds to meet the needs of the fast-growing organic industry.

The grant is part of a $17 million national initiative to improve growers and processors’ yield, quality, and profitability using organic standards.

The project builds on germplasm, methods, and technologies developed by Martin Bohn, Associate Professor of Plant Science at the University of Illinois, and other researchers in previous OREI projects.

Corn is the second-largest organic crop in the US after wheat.

However, only a tiny fraction of the seeds sold to organic farmers are produced using certified organic methods. While several seed companies sell seeds that can be used in certified organic systems, some of the available varieties have been developed specifically for organic production systems or evaluated in an organic production environment.

Through previous federal grants, Bohn has worked for many years to develop new sources of corn seed suitable for organic conditions. His corn has been tested on farms in the Midwest as part of a collaborative research network designed to refine key breeding traits for organic corn growing systems.

The scientists intend to go further in developing three-way hybrids more suitable for organic seed production systems than the single hybrids currently marketed by most companies.

The research team is focused on developing hybrids that have the traits desired by organic farmers, especially those that have been identified as a priority during pre-stakeholder meetings.

These traits include high levels of the vital nutrient methionine and the ability to withstand weed pressure.

Another goal is to create a mechanism to grow organically grown corn to counter pollination from transgenic pollen coming from conventional fields, which results in huge losses for organic farmers.

Farmers, businesses and student interns interested in the rural development of Puerto Rico will be invited to boot camps to produce seeds and plan field trials in the Midwest next year.

In the next few years, the trainees will travel to the farmers to help with the trials. A unique aspect of the project will be two organic corn boot camps at a collaborating nursery in Puerto Rico.