Researchers develop new genetic lines for organic corn production

AMES, Iowa – Scientists at Iowa State University have been leading an effort to improve efficiency and genetics in organic corn production, a rapidly growing sector of the agricultural world since early 2020.

Thomas Lübberstedt, professor of agronomy at Iowa State, is leading a research team aimed at developing new lines of corn that take advantage of recent advances in crop genetics and which can also be grown to organic standards.

The research team recently received a $ 1.4 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to apply genetic tools to corn development organic sweet and specialty corn varieties, such as popcorn and tortillas.

“We will identify new genes that can be used in organic production to improve efficiency,” said Lübberstedt. “By using modern DNA marker technologies, we believe we can more efficiently develop varieties of organic sweet corn and specialty corn. “

Lübberstedt said the researchers will build on previous work to identify genes controlling traits valued by organic growers, such as pest tolerance and grain quality.

“In this new project, we are saying that there are quite a few genes already known in corn that would add value to quickly generate new varieties of sweet corn or specialty corn if you could manage them effectively using the tools and methods permitted in organic production. context, ”he said.

To be certified organic, producers cannot use any chemicals or synthetic inputs in the cultivation of their crop. This means that many fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used in conventional corn production are prohibited when growing organic corn.

Instead, organic farmers depend on manure or compost to fertilize their crops. They also appreciate varieties that are more tolerant to pests, as they cannot treat their fields with synthetic pesticides.

Most of the seeds selected for maize production are suitable for conventional farming systems, not organic. Researchers will create proof-of-concept maize varieties better suited for organic production.

The researchers will use a biologically compatible version of the doubled haploid technology, which allows the development of usable inbred lines much faster than conventional breeding. Organic farmers who have agreed to evaluate the hybrids will provide feedback to researchers on which varieties appear to be the most promising.

Kathleen Delate, research team member and professor of horticulture and agronomy at Iowa State, said demand for organic corn has grown rapidly in recent years as consumers increasingly realize the impacts environmental aspects of food production.

Organic food sales in the United States climbed more than 12% last year, from about $ 55 billion in 2019 to about $ 62 billion in 2020.

Delate said there are about 132,000 acres devoted to organic production in Iowa, split roughly evenly between corn and soybeans.

She said organic corn is a particularly important commodity because organic livestock, poultry and egg production depends on organic corn for food.

“Even if you don’t consume organic corn directly, it has a big impact on the market,” she said.

The research team also includes Paul Scott, a research geneticist for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, who will focus on genetic traits such as nutritional value and genetic purity. Scott also studies specialty corn varieties, such as white and blue corn, often used to make tortilla chips.

Bill Tracy, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will focus on improving the characteristics of sweet corn.

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