Market Matters Blog

Sorghum's GMO Question

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)

This week, reporter Emily Unglesbee and I take broader look at what it will take for grain sorghum to increase its share of farmers' crop mixes and become a 1 billion bushel crop. There are some important hurdles sorghum will have to face if it's going to get there, with maintaining profitability and strong markets at the top of that list, followed by better weed and insect management. Its drought tolerance and ability to perform on marginal land helps it out, too.

One thing we don't dive into in detail in this week's series is that sorghum is a non-genetically engineered crop. Why? Sorghum's reaping market advantages right now due to its non-GE status, and until annual production achieves a critical mass, it's not likely to be a profitable endeavor for technology companies ora contentious issue. Few farmers are pushing for change now, butthey are keenly aware of the advantages GE sorghum could bring to sorghumproduction.

Emily took a deeper look at the questions around GE sorghum while attending the Export Sorghum meeting in Houston last month. We feel the story she wrote then adds important context to our series, so we're including it here for reference.


Sorghum's GMO Question

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

Between domestic and international markets, sorghum's status as an ancient grain with no genetic engineering is paying off, but how long will that last?

By Emily Unglesbee

DTN Staff Reporter

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

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(AG/CZ)

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Chris Grotegut
7/26/2015 | 6:05 PM CDT
Sorghum is an excellent choice right in line with wheat as far as crops go on the southern high plains and right behind native grass. When the wells yield to little water-that is the now for some, and the future for many! Sorghum is a big deal and without question down here a tough crop to beat in terms of yield per inch of rain, cost of production, and genetic diversity. Economics of sorghum generally matches or beats wheat, and beats native grasses. Sorghum, Wheat, native pasture, and cattle is a great combination game in the Texas panhandle.
Curt Zingula
7/23/2015 | 7:16 AM CDT
"we don't want to close the door on GE". Smart! Take a look at cassava and Hawaiian papaya. Then inform the customer that broadcast applications of pesticides to protect their food are not necessarily good for the environment.