While the European Union still watches with a hesitant eye, the interest and demand for biotech grains continue to make big strides in the marketplace.

Worldwide, about 16 countries accounted for nearly all of the biotech organisms planted on 145 million acres in 2002, according to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

From 1996 to 2002, the amount of acreage devoted to these special crops increased by 35 fold. This is considered to be one of the highest adoption rates of any new technology in agriculture, the ISAA report adds.

Of those 16 countries, the majority of the total acres planted with biotech crops occurred in just four: the U.S., Argentina, Canada and China.

However, the expansive growth has also created some new issues and concerns about identity preservation — especially in corn — and among producers who may be growing biotech grains next to neighbors who aren't.

For example, the value-added market for non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) grains has been steadily growing in health foods along with snacks and cereals. As a whole, retail sales of organic foods and beverages are expected to reach nearly $20 billion by 2005, according to a report published jointly by the Natural Marketing Institute and the Organic Trade Association. Health foods, snacks and cereals are expected to make up a large portion of that market.

Grain millers and processors have already responded to the demand for non-GMO products by closely working with contract growers to keep GMOs and non-GMOs properly segregated.

In many cases, grain millers have been helping contract producers select high-performing and the purest non-GMO seeds best suited for local growing conditions, as well as choosing those varieties with high bulk density and a large, vitreous endosperm — all good traits for processing.

“Contract producers of organic grains or non-GMOs who work with us are required to send in representative samples first for transgenic testing before shipping grain into our milling facilities,” says Dale Drachenberg, general manager, of Didion Milling, based in Johnson Creek and Cambria, WI. “This is just standard procedure for us, and it helps protect the producer not only in terms of product purity, but also in shipping time and cost if there is a problem.”

With two milling locations, Didion Milling serves the conventional food industry as well as the health food and snack industry. It processes about 6 million bushels of corn and soybeans yearly into meal products, flours, corn grits and even corn/soy blends purchased by the USDA for famine relief overseas.

“Much of the non-GMO grains we buy end up going to cereal manufacturers on the East and West coasts — and so far that's where the demand seems the strongest,” adds Drachenberg.

Didion Milling has been selling non-GMO milled grain products and identity preserved products for the past four years, according to Drachenberg. And during that time he hasn't seen any significant cases of cross-contamination among organic and conventional producers.

“I think there are several reasons for that,” explains Drachenberg. “Our location here in Wisconsin hasn't experienced the rapid growth of using GMOs like other areas in the country, and our contract producers have a good handle on using buffer zones, using pure seed and talking with their neighbors about what they're planting.”

However, Drachenberg concedes that as more producers begin to plant GMO grains with transgenic traits for a particular market or crop management need, more comprehensive testing will likely occur at the milling or processing plant to keep crops properly segregated and identified.

“Most processors have the equipment, the time and expert technicians to run more thorough tests to detect transgenic traits,” he says. “About the only test that a grower could use, which is limited in scope, is a lateral flow strip test which can detect a protein marker in kernels of grain. But these tests can take anywhere from 15 minutes up to a half an hour, and producers may not want to spend that much time, especially during harvest when things get hectic.”

Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomist, cautions producers about the limitations of strip tests for detecting transgenic traits. “There are a lot of strip tests available to detect transgenic traits; however, the limitation is that a producer first needs to know which trait (or traits) he or she is looking for and then select the appropriate strip test to detect a specific trait,” he says.

Unfortunately, there really aren't many rapid and inexpensive tests for transgenic traits on the market right now for producers, according to Lauer. “That doesn't mean today's tests aren't accurate; it's just important that producers understand what tests may be available and what they can or can't do in terms of detecting traits,” he says.

This is one of the reasons why Lauer took the time to put together a list of testing laboratories in the state, as well as a comprehensive list of companies that sell kits to detect transgenic traits (verified by the Federal Grain Inspection Service), including strip tests. That information, which is available on the Web, along with some other suggested sources about GMOs can be found in the sidebar below.

Michael Ballweg, a University of Wisconsin Extension crops and soils agent in Sheboygan County, says he hasn't yet seen a groundswell of interest among his clients to use strip testing on their farms. But more calls and requests for information about these tests have been coming into his office during the past year.

“Some of the grain producers in my county are using the strip tests as a way to double-check their loads before shipping the grain,” says Ballweg. “I know a few others who are using the test strips to detect whether or not their harvesting or hauling equipment is harboring any unwanted transgenic traits from grains.”

But with two distinct markets in place and growing — one involving GMO grains and the other non-GMO — Ballweg and others say they wouldn't be surprised if the industry responds soon by developing better, faster and more economical ways for producers to test for transgenic traits.

Transgenic Trait Resources

  • Testing for Transgenic Traits: A Web site listing of laboratories in Wisconsin, including companies in the U.S. selling testing kits and lateral flow strips, compiled by Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomist. This site can be accessed at: corn.agronomy.wisc.edu/WCM/2003/TestingGrainForTransgenicTraits.htm.

  • Corn Segregation: “A Necessary Evil in Today's Biotech Age,” an article written by Bob Nielsen, Purdue University agronomist, in April 2003. Article contains links to more information. Article can be accessed at: www.kingcorn.org/news/articles.03/GMO_Segregation-0423.html.

  • The Non-GMO Source: A newsletter published by Writing Solutions, Inc., of Fairfield, IA, that offers information and resources about non-GMO products and services. Web site address: www.nongmosource.com.

  • IdentityPreserved.com: A Web site published by Critereon, Iroquois, SD, that offers services and products relating to authenticity and quality management in the agricultural/food industries.

  • CropLife America (formerly the American Crop Protection Association) also offers information about GMO issues at its site: www.croplifeamerica.org. In the left-hand column, click on the heading: Biotechnology. Also an article (pdf) titled “Methods for Detection of GMO Grain in Commerce” can be accessed at: www.croplifeamerica.org/public/issues/biotech/detecta.pdf.

  • In 2001, a staff attorney for The Farmers' Legal Action Group, of St. Paul, MN, wrote an article titled: “GMO Liability Threats for Farmers.” The article (pdf) can be accessed at: www.flaginc.com/pubs/arts/GMOthreats.pdf.