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The vast majority of corn, soybeans and other crops in the U.S. are grown from genetically modified (GM) seed, and these crops are also often used as ingredients in processed foods.

Between 1996 and 2013, the total surface area of land cultivated with GM crops increased by a factor of 100, from 14,200,000 acres to 432 million acres. 'Today more the 90 percent of the US soybean harvest and over 80 percent of the corn harvest is produced from GM seed,' said Dieter Harle, a feed nutrition consultant from Iowa.

GM crops, also known as biotech crops, are those where, the DNA of has been modified using genetic engineering techniques to, in most cases, introduce a new trait to the plant that does not occur naturally in the species. These include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, resistance to chemical treatments or improving the nutrient profile of the crop.

One main selling point for crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been that they reduce the use of pesticides. While the use of insecticides has declined since these crops were introduced in the mid-1990s, the use of herbicides has soared.

The majority of corn, soybeans, and other GM crops grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, a weed killer that is the main ingredient in Roundup. Since that technology was introduced in 1996, there has been almost a tenfold increase in the use of the herbicide.

In recent years, many producers have become concerned about the potential long-term negative effects of increased glyphosate application as well as the GMOs in the seed they plant.

Anthracnose stalk rot

Garold Bartel of Bartel Seed & Supply, located near Scandinavia in western Waupaca County, noted that some of his customers have seen anthracnose stalk rot in their corn. Symptoms, which become apparent just before maturity, include uniform or blotchy, shiny black color on the outer stalk.

The inner stalk also may be black and systemically infected. Several internodes may be rotted and easily crushed with finger pressure. The plant above or below the ear may die and lodging may result.

The disease is caused by colletotrichum graminicola, a fungus that also causes anthracnose leaf blight. The pathogen overwinters in corn residue. Conditions favoring the disease are: corn residue left on the soil surface, insect injury and environmental stress.

Based on the discovery of this disease and other concerns of producers related to difficulty in finding non-GMO seed, Bartel contacted Harle, asking him to help locate non-GMO seed for corn and soybeans, and provide information how to grow these non-GM crops.

That request led Harle to put together a seminar recently at the Crystal Falls Banquet and Conference Center that featured a team of experts from Iowa who have a history of successfully growing non-GMO crops and using alternatives soil treatments.

Current trends

Harle began by telling the more than 30 producers attending, 'The objective of this meeting is that you will leave with basic information on what it takes to grow non-GMO crops, because we know that, over time, the market will demand it. For example, Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Company has publicly stated that it's actively looking for more non-GMO milk, he said.'

He also noted that growers in Germany and other European countries are not permitted to plant GM seed. 'However, they are allowed to spray glyphosate, and have been using it about the same length of time as we have here as a total killing herbicide,' he said.

'Since they are growing mostly small grains, they spray it to uniformly ripen the crop: they kill the weeds, they kill the barley, wheat and oats so the crop ripens at the same time by killing it about two weeks before harvest,' Harle related.

Glyphosate concerns

Then when seeding into the soil that was treated with glyphosate, many are finding considerable residual glyphosate in the root of the following crop, according to Harle. 'We're beginning to think this is comparable to what we're seeing here, particularly in corn planted the second year,' he added.

A joint commission of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says GMOs have the potential to introduce toxins and new allergens (or increase levels of existing ones), or cause nutritional changes in foods and other unexpected effects.

Retired Purdue University plant pathologist Dr. Don Huber says glyphosate is patented as a very powerful antibiotic that kills many beneficial microorganisms in the soil, plant, environment and gastrointestinal tract of animals and man that are essential for nutrient availability, absorption, physiological function and disease protection of living things.

He added that, Glyphosate is a strong, broad-spectrum nutrient chelator that inhibits plant enzymes responsible for disease resistance so that plants succumb from pathogenic attack.

Glyphosate residue also has been found in feed, seed, manure, dairy products and water.

Growing non-GM crops

Keith Schlapkohl is a producer from Stockton, Iowa, who, when biotech products first became readily available, owned 500 sows, 200 stock cows and from 1,500-2,000 head of feeder cattle.

'Crops were not my priority then, the land was a way to get rid of the manure. Mycotoxins helped put me out of the hog business,' he said. 'Over the years, I became more of a crop person. Now I wear many hats, including spreading gypsum throughout the winter that comes from ethanol plants.'

Schlapkohl has been 100 percent non-GMO for eight years. His daughter and two sisters had health issues that he says vastly improved when they switched to a diet of non-GMO foods.

'What I've learned over the last five years is first to consider crop safety and the importance of soil pH, learn how herbicides work. Glyphosate is no longer in my toolbox. But if you use it, use it judiciously,' he cautioned.

'Soil is a giant rumen, and 90 percent of herbicides are chelators,' Schlapkohl remarked. 'If you try to put a chelator on a growing plant, that plant becomes a hypodermic needle that injects it into the soil as deep as you have roots. Then you don't have biology, sunlight or much oxygen.'

Schlapkohl stressed that, 'After we kill the weed, we have to add back what we just chelated, whether it be copper or other minerals, to make that plant feel good again.'

He also advocates applying foliars to plants. 'I get better crop health by applying foliars, and it's anywhere from 5 to 12 to 15 times more efficient than if you put that same amount of nutrient on the ground. It's all about management, recognizing what the plant needs and when it needs it.'

Schlapkohl also related that an Iowa hog farmer currently pays his neighbors a premium of $1 per bushel to grow non-GMO corn and beans. 'He can pay that extra $1 a bushel because his herd health and breeding are so much better.'

Protecting the soil

Jeff Buresh of Bio-Mass Renewable Technologies (BRT), based in Ladora, Iowa, presented seminar attendees with information on how to protect and rebuild the soil, along with a list of non-GMO products to help achieve those goals.

'Our whole focus is on taking care of the soil. We want to take care of the biology so we emphasize low-salt fertilizers, soft rock phosphate, composted manure, liquid starters and strip-till blends and nitrogen fixing bacteria,' he noted.

BRT also offers non-GM seed, and a variety of other products, including Wake Up, Seed Set, BRT Residue Digester, Gypsum/Power SC, Pursanova Water Systems, Prosodic and Safestrike natural insect and disease control, and cover crop seed.

'We have more strip tillers coming on board to help cut costs, and we're also seeing increased yields.' he said.

More information on these and other products along with information for growing non-GM crops is available by contacting Jeff at 319-330-9805. For information on non-GM seed in central Wisconsin, contact Garold Bartel at 715-281-7124. To learn more about the research Dieter Harle has compiled, contact him at www.BestOptionsinc.com or 563-9401440.

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