CLARENCE, Mo.—Clarence is like many small towns in Missouri. There’s a church, a bank, a gas station.
But rising above the town of 800 is a seed-cleaning facility for non-genetically modified crops, a feature that puts Clarence in the middle of a national trend, the Columbia Tribune reports.
Premium Ag Products, an hour north of Columbia in Shelby County, cleans, sorts and ships grains that are free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The facility, owned by a co-op of 71 farmers, is part of a growing niche in agriculture. Although genetically modified corn and soybeans occupy about 90 percent of the market, non-genetically modified crops are an increasingly popular option for U.S. growers.
“We’ve always had non-GMOs, but we’re probably going to see more of an uptick in terms of planting,” said Joe Parcell, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri.
Rising interest might be driven in part by labeling initiatives across the country. More than 20 states have or will propose bills requiring labels for food that contains genetically modified products. In early June, Connecticut passed the first widespread labeling law, although it won’t take effect until neighboring states follow suit. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the use of labels for meat certified GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project, and restaurant chain Chipotle voluntarily started labeling menu items that contain genetically modified ingredients.
However, Parcell said he doesn’t expect to see the passage of a similar labeling bill in Missouri anytime soon. The agricultural industry has a significant presence in the state, with Missouri ranked seventh in soybean production and the multinational agricultural giant Monsanto based in St. Louis.
Even non-GMO facilities such as Premium Ag are a rarity in the state. According to the Non-GMO Sourcebook, Missouri has only 13 suppliers of non-genetically modified crops, compared with 29 in Iowa and 31 in Illinois.
Genetically modified crops were introduced for commercial use in 1994 with the development of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. Conventional seeds were injected with a gene that made them resistant to Roundup, a widely used herbicide. This allowed farmers to spray entire fields, preventing weed growth without damaging the crop. Roundup Ready corn was introduced in 1998, and by 2000, genetically modified crops were the norm in corn and soybean production because of the convenience of the technology and the belief that the seed was higher-yielding.
The technology has attracted criticism for crossing biological barriers: Genetically modified crops can contain genes from multiple organisms, which is not possible via conventional breeding methods. Europe and Asia have long been wary of genetically modified crops, and Premium Ag Board President Scot Shively estimated that 35 percent of seed his facility processes is exported to Asian countries.
Shively said he expects the U.S. market to grow as Americans become more ingredient-conscious and health-focused stores such as Whole Foods grow in popularity. “We thought it would be something consumers would be wanting,” said Susan Bentley, Premium Ag’s administrative assistant.
Shively said higher prices for conventional corn and soybeans also are a factor: Premiums are around $2 a bushel, on top of the going rate of $14 to $15 a bushel.
“Two or three years ago, bigger companies weren’t offering premiums, but now they’re getting into that game,” said Shively, who farms 1,200 acres near Shelbyville.
Although non-genetically modified crops bring higher prices, they can also cost more to maintain. Boone County farmer John Sam Williamson, who grows Roundup Ready soybeans on 1,400 acres in the Missouri River bottoms, said the premium offered for non-GMO crops isn’t high enough to make him reconsider his choice of seed.
“Non-GMs cost more to produce and have a smaller yield,” Williamson said. “It’s not economically feasible.”
Grover Shannon, a soybean geneticist and breeder at MU, said the perception that genetically modified varieties have better yield doesn’t always turn out to be true. “There are some very competitive non-GM varieties,” he said. “But nobody knows that story because everybody’s testing GMOs.”
Shannon said most funding for conventionally bred crop research comes from public universities, whereas agribusinesses can devote millions to researching GM crops. “GMOs have the advantage because that’s 90 percent of the market,” he said.
Despite growing interest in conventional crops, Parcell suspects most Missouri farmers will continue to grow GMOs. “Farmers will pay for yield no matter where the genetics come from,” he said.