Sorghum's GMO Question

Industry Reaps Advantages of Non-GMO Markets ... For Now

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Kind granola bars trumpet their non-GMO status and use of popped kernels of sorghum, which is enjoying new consumer interest in part thanks to its lack of genetic engineering. (DTN photo by Emily Unglesbee)

HOUSTON (DTN) -- Doug Bice chooses his words carefully when he talks about sorghum's status as a non-genetically engineered (GE) crop.

As director of high-value markets for the Sorghum Checkoff, Bice is well aware that the grain's history of traditional breeding has worked wonders for the industry recently. After continued rejections of GE corn shipments, China started a major switch in 2013 to U.S. grain sorghum to feed its poultry, cattle and hogs. This unprecedented demand has sent sorghum prices soaring above King Corn in some parts of the country.

Stateside, sorghum's status as an ancient grain, untouched by genetic engineering, has made it increasingly attractive to the growing number of consumers who don't want to eat food with GE ingredients. As a result, the Sorghum Checkoff's marketing efforts for food-grade sorghum have included this aspect of the grain, alongside other attributes, such as being gluten-free and being packed with antioxidants.

Yet the sorghum industry is leery of taking too strong a stance against GE sorghum, which could speed up important crop traits such as pest and weed resistance in the future, farmers and industry experts told DTN.

"The industry will have to make a judgment call on this in the next few years," Bice admitted. "But at this point, we don't have a strong commercial reason to become GMO."

"I wouldn't want to close the door on it," agreed Spence Pennington, a sorghum producer from Raymondville, Texas. "We might need it down the line."

But for now, Pennington likes growing a crop without any GE history. "It gives us diversity in our technology and markets," he explained.

Both Pennington and Bice were in Houston this week for the second-annual Export Sorghum conference, hosted by the Sorghum Checkoff and the Texas Grain Sorghum Producers. The event brought domestic and international grain buyers together with sorghum producers and experts for three days, in the hopes of generating new sorghum markets and improving existing ones.

This year, the event's 74 attendees included a dozen grain buyers from China, eager to learn about sorghum's feed qualities and availability in light of the country's robust new appetite for the non-GE grain. China's sorghum imports have skyrocketed from a mere 100,000 bushels in the 2012-13 marketing year to 313.7 million bushels for 2014-15, according to the Sorghum Checkoff.

Farmers have little desire to disrupt that trend, Pennington noted.

"In the U.S., we could probably feed GMO sorghum to livestock without a problem," he said. "But in Europe and China, that's not the case. So we can either try to overcome that with education, or we can just let the customer dictate the market."

On the human side of the equation, Bice believes sorghum holds serious potential. The grain's gluten-free, non-GE nature could make it a serious competitor to newly popular grains such as quinoa, as well as an ingredient in organic and gluten-free breads or beers. Pet food is another prospective market, as well as restaurants and food-service companies, he said.

Staking out even a small percentage of these markets could be a boon to the small but growing sorghum industry, he pointed out. "In a 500-million-bushel industry, to increase demand by 10, 20, or 30 million bushels per year would be very significant," he said. "And that's clearly in our sights between human consumption and pet food."

Theoretically, non-GE food-grade sorghum could co-exist with GE sorghum grown for livestock and fuel, but it would be risky, Bice noted. "We would need a lot of education to make that work," he said.

As far as crop breeding and advancements go, there are practical benefits to sticking with traditional breeding in sorghum, USDA Agricultural Research Service plant physiologist John Burke told Export Sorghum attendees.

"There's a huge amount of genetic diversity and natural variation within the sorghum germplasm collection," he said. As a result, breeders can almost always use traditional breeding to incorporate the traits they want into sorghum varieties without resorting to genetic engineering techniques that pull genes from other species, he explained.

Moreover, Burke and his team of sorghum breeders can turn over their discoveries -- sorghum lines with improved cold tolerance, for example -- to private companies that can quickly incorporate them and sell them to farmers without the slow and expensive regulatory process facing GE crops.

Nonetheless, sorghum is facing rising pest problems that could benefit from GE traits such as herbicide-tolerance and insect-resistance in the future, Pennington conceded.

Herbicide-tolerant weeds are beginning to surface in his region, and controlling grasses has always been historically difficult for sorghum growers, since the grain is itself a grass species.

The sugarcane aphid arrived in the southern U.S. abruptly two years ago and required multiple insecticide applications last year. Josh Birdwell, a sorghum farmer from Malone, Texas, told DTN that controlling the aphid last year added $60 to $70 per acre to his operation's expenses.

Other sorghum pests, such as the stink bug, midge and headworm have become significantly more problematic in recent years, adding to his workload and expenses, Pennington said.

In contrast, the availability of Bt cotton has simplified pest control in that crop dramatically on his farm, Pennington noted.

Pennington believes that future water scarcity could eventually make sorghum a sizeable enough crop to draw serious biotechnology investments from agricultural companies. By then, pest issues and global attitudes may have shifted enough to make GE sorghum worthwhile, but until then, he's content without it, he said.

Bice agreed. "If sorghum becomes a billion-bushel crop, then GMO sorghum might become a real possibility," he said. "But as long as production is where it is, I see no need to insert sorghum into that conflict."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee