Who’s Managing On-Farm Genetic Diversity of Corn in the Upper Midwest?

Port Townsend, WA (September 27, 2021) - The Organic Seed Alliance's (OSA) Cathleen McCluskey recently published an article from her Agroecology Master’s research that focuses on farmers’ roles in managing on-farm genetic diversity of corn in the Upper Midwest.

The article presents findings from exploratory interviews she conducted with growers in the Upper Midwest about their perceptions and management of corn genetic diversity on their farms, given they don’t have access to parental background details on the seed they purchase. Her research highlights roadblocks to transparency, farmers’ agency, public research, and crop vulnerability assessments on U.S. corn due to patent restrictions awarded to private companies.

The article abstract is below and we encourage you to read the full text in Sustainability.

Debates about the genetic diversity of cultivated crops have riled the scientific community. While there have been studies on measuring genetic diversity among crop types, none have described on-farm genetic diversity in U.S. maize (Zea mays) because of patent restrictions. The approximately 36.5 million hectares of U.S. maize planted by farmers annually is carried out largely without them having knowledge of the seed genetic background.

The literature shows a shrinking of genetic diversity in commercially available hybrids over time. Given the restrictions on the genetic information given to farmers about their maize seed and the risk it poses to their landscape, we conducted twenty exploratory interviews with farmers in the Upper Midwest regarding their perspectives of and strategies for managing on-farm genetic diversity in their maize crop.

The data gathered suggest five themes: (1) managing surface diversity by planting multiple varieties; (2) navigating seed relabeling; (3) lacking clear access to genetic background information; (4) reliance on seed dealers when selecting varieties; and (5) limited quality genetics for organic systems.

This study concludes that the lack of access to genetic background data for public researchers, including the United States Department of Agriculture and farmers, does not allow for vulnerability assessments to be carried out on the landscape and puts farmers at risk to crop failure.

Read the full article.

Cathleen is continuing this research with her advisor Bill Tracy of University of Wisconsin-Madison.