A Conventional Farmer’s Transition to Non-GMO
Scott Odle is probably as far from being an anti-GMO activist as anyone could be. He has spent his life in conventional farming, growing up on an Indiana farm, studying agricultural economics at Purdue University, working for Cargill, and then returning to his family farm. A self-described conservative, Odle has doubts that genetically modified foods are harmful. Yet, Odle and his Indiana-based company, Spectrum Seed, are supporting the growing non-GMO food movement and have built a successful business, developing and selling non-GMO corn seed.
How did Odle’s journey lead him to the non-GMO world? A combination of factors including concerns about control over seed by a few large corporations, better economics and yields of non-GMO production, and the need to make agriculture more sustainable.
Not too many years ago, Odle admits he was “aggressive” on using genetically modified corn traits on his Indiana farm. But over time he started questioning the value of GM seed, and realized non-GMO was performing better. “I was gaining seven to ten more bushels per acre with non-GMO,” he says.
“We wanted to be simple”
Five years ago, Odle connected with Scott Johnson, a plant breeder who had worked for biotech giant BASF. “Scott found there were a lot of good non-GMO products out there,” Odle says.
Odle, Johnson, and several other colleagues then launched Spectrum Seed.
“I thought as producers we needed more choice. The price increases (for GM seed) were huge. It scared me how much I was spending on seed,” Odle says.
The aim was to create a company that would focus on developing and selling quality non-GMO corn seed and treat its customers well.
“Our mantra was that we wanted to be simple. We don’t require a refuge in a bag (as GM seed companies do), there are no rules, and none of our corn has been rejected in China,” Odle says, referring to China’s rejection of Syngenta’s unapproved AgriSure GM corn.
Spectrum is succeeding. “We are going into our fifth selling season, and our sales have almost doubled every year,” Odle says.
This year Spectrum offers 20 different non-GMO corn hybrids with maturity dates ranging from 82 to 116 days. They sell seed in 38 states.
Field trials show non-GMO outperforms GMO
This past year Spectrum conducted field trials of its non-GMO corn hybrids, comparing them with GM corn varieties in different regions in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio. The results showed that Spectrum’s hybrids produced yields that were as good as, or in some cases, better than GM varieties from Pioneer Hi-Bred, DeKalb, and other seed companies. For example in east central Iowa, Spectrum’s 6104 corn variety produced 181 bushels per acre compared to 178 bushels per acre for a Pioneer variety.
“We can produce yield without having (GMO) traits,” Odle says.
To ensure the non-GMO status of its seed, Spectrum receives third-party certification through the Identity Preservation program offered by the Indiana Crop Improvement Association. The program requires a threshold of less than 1.0% adventitious GM material or 99.0% purity for non-GMO corn. Spectrum’s hybrids have been tested to 0.2% and 0.1% adventitious GM material.
Will have to question value of GMO traits “or go broke”
While consumer demand for non-GMO foods is growing rapidly, Odle sees the growth of non-GMO at the farm level also. “We’re seeing more farmers growing non-GMO,” he says.
The main reason is simple economics: growing non-GMO is more cost-effective. Non-GMO seed costs about half as much as GM seed. “They are asking ‘am I getting value from the (GMO) traited product?’” Odle says. “They will have to ask that question or go broke.”
Farmers can see the economic advantages of growing non-GMO on Spectrum’s website; a Non-GMO Advantage Calculator allows them to input values such as their number of acres, price of corn, and seed cost to see their savings.
“Farmers can save $60 per acre just on the cost of seed,” Odle says.
Conflicted view of GMOs
Regarding the safety of GMOs, Odle is conflicted. “People say their health changes when they eat non-GMO. I want to believe that,” he says. “But I have a hard time understanding what GMOs are doing to kill us.”
But Odle does see problems with GMOs. “I think they can be overused and can cause unintended consequences, for example insect and weed resistance,” he says.
He also says that GM foods should be labeled. “I fall on the side of labeling; people should have the choice.”
If mandatory GMO labeling became law in the US, Odle thinks that non-GMO crop production could reach 30% to 40%. But even without labeling he thinks it could reach 25%.
The GMO debate aside, Odle says Spectrum Seed wants to encourage more sustainable agriculture practices including crop rotations, cover crops, and “judicious” use of pesticides. “There is a correlation between healthy soils and the value of food. Better soil health produces better food,” he says.
Odle grows cover crops on 3200 of his 4000-acre farm to minimize weeds and insects to build soil fertility. “There is a cover crop revolution coming,” he says. “Organic farmers have been growing cover crops for years.”
Looking at the big picture, Odle believes Spectrum is having a positive impact with its non-GMO corn focus. “We are happy to be here and give farmers a choice. We have a purpose; we want to be simple, substantial, and just.”