Renewable Farming

3MG: a corn breeder growing counter-culture to the GMO industry

An old friend just sent us a new and encouraging report which underscores the resurgence of farmer interest in non-GMO seed. And it’s refreshing to know that not all small seed firms have been “Deep Sixed” by the major seed/chemical multinationals.  Dick Hagen, a native Minnesotan with an accent to match, was a colleague editor back in my Farm Journal days. He migrated to the seed business, but was never cured of his journalism. So in his maturing years, he has returned to writing for The Land Magazine in Minnesota, and as a consultant to some of his associates in the ag seed industry. 

When we crossed paths this week, he also sent us a couple of articles he has written. I merged two of them which relate to 3rd Millennium Genetics, a non-GMO seed firm with headquarters in Olivia. Dick’s report offers an unusual insight into development of new corn hybrids — and reveals a clue as to why the non-GMO firms which are research-intensive may have a yield edge over the big and powerful firms that sell 90% GMO hybrids.  Here’s Dick Hagen’s report, condensed somewhat from the original version (and with an added “editor’s note”).      

— Introduction by Jerry Carlson


By Dick Hagen of Olivia, MN

Going the opposite of the ‘big players’ in the seed world sounds like a recipe for disaster!

But not so for 3rd Millenium Genetics, an Olivia, MN firm which has a 10-year presence in the U.S. and Puerto Rico developing new breeding lines that are totally non-GMO. That means 3MG hybrids don’t carry inserted-gene ‘traits’ for weed control, disease tolerance, insect resistance, etc. Trait-stacked hybrids have been the bread and butter of most seed companies ever since the advent of ‘Roundup Ready’ seed.

Ed Baumgartner, Olivia, MN native and founder of 3MG, says: “For me, traits should mean the basic genetics for developing a new hybrid. Anything you add on, like glyphosate tolerance, is an accessory. So I look at GMO traits as accessories — not yield builders but yield protectants. And it’s this added expense of traits which is driving the resurgence of non-GMO hybrids. Farmers have to cut production costs. Non-GMO hybrids are an obvious means.”

In the seed corn business, success is in the numbers. Even though 3MG is counter-culture to the bulk of the seed industry, Baumgartner reports that 3MG currently has 14 hybrids being marketed by other seed firms who have ‘bought’ non-GMO pedigrees from 3MG.

“We’ve added four more hybrids for the 2016 season,” he says. “When yield data from our 2015 research plots gets plugged into our total pedigree base, I think it will generate even more interest within the seed industry to launch even more non-GMO hybrids into the corn world.”

He points out that all hybrids start out as conventional genetics. Various transgenes, such as those from bacteria or viruses, are added later. That’s a three- to five-year process to add a specific transgene. “Realistically if you are buying a new non-GMO, conventional hybrid, it is three to five years newer than a GMO hybrid of the same genetics. In the seed business, we talk of trendlines of about 1.5 more bushels per year. Do that for three years and you have a 4 to 5 bushel gain by going with a just-released conventional hybrid versus a GMO hybrid — even though they both may have the same genetic background.”

(Editor’s note: Firms offering primarily GMO hybrids have a financial incentive to hold promising new hybrids off the market until the genetic traits are inserted, so they can be sold at premium prices as “stacked” numbers.)

Baumgartner explains hybrid development at 3MG involves two steps. First is sorting out and selecting inbred lines by growing them in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

“We learn a lot about agronomic tendencies of each inbred line even before it gets into our crossing blocks for the development of a new hybrid. We learn about its drought capabilities; what soil types it works best in; its stress tolerances to insects and fungi — and of course its ability to produce yield.”

Then, 3MG crosses the strongest inbred lines to see which hybrids perform best. Net results are that his firm is often developing new hybrids from both sides of its parent genetic stock.

Because of its focus on non-GMO hybrids, Baumgartner views 3rd Millennium Genetics as having opportunities in countries which ban growing of most GMO crops. Currently there are more than 60 such nations, including most EU nations, Russia and Ukraine.

Baumgartner says, “The U.S. market continues to be dominated with a ‘mindset’ of trait technologies as their primary objective. Yet I continue to get calls and emails weekly from outside the U.S. We have products being tested in France, Germany, Austria, the Ukraine, Serbia, Italy, Spain, and Turkey. Soon we hope to be in South Africa, Pakistan, Iraq, Colombia and Venezuela. We’re not looking at the Far East. China is always a difficult market — plus I know the big players are already focusing on China. We’re a small company. We function better when dealing with smaller markets.”

3MG’s production base in Puerto Rico involves three farms totaling 900 acres and 30 full-time employees. During planting and harvesting season, the firm adds 200 temporary workers. The Olivia, MN headquarters has six full time employees.

Wade Roemeling and Ed’s daughter Raechel Baumgartner direct the Olivia operation, which also includes summer research locations in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Ed Baumgartner

Developing insect, heat and drought tolerant hybrids is a major focus of 3MG. “Our primary intent is more production per plant, not more plants per acre. We’re after better producing factories rather than more factories,” says Baumgartner.

“We work with some corns found in equatorial regions of Central and South America and the highlands of Mexico. Maize is an amazing crop. You can develop interesting new pedigrees which often are spinoffs from some of these unusual corns found in other parts of the world.”

Even though the research and development of new ‘inbred’ lines is basic, the major business thrust of 3MG is contract research work for other seed companies. Thus, 3MG sees a wide range of isogenic lines at early stages of development. Several seed companies are now in the adoption stage of marketing non-GMO products originating with 3MG research.

3MG is remarkably diversified into crops beyond corn. Baumgartner reports they have worked with 20 different crops. Corn, soybeans, rice, sorghum, cotton and sunflower are the majors. Also they do some work with edible beans and sesame seed. “Last year we were even approached about some breeding work with marijuana, but we turned it down, basically for the safety of our employees.” That’s the real test of quality management.

Baumgartner is 55. His biggest achievement to date, as he sees it? “Perhaps that we’re still here after 10 years. Most seed people told us we were crazy to even start this 10 years ago. What I’m most excited about currently is to watch the development of our staff in Puerto Rico and at our Olivia location. The amount of work that gets done is amazing.” (Actually Baumgartner now has 18 years in Puerto Rico because he worked eight years with Dow AgroScience before starting his own business.)

He’s not concerned about the reality of more rules and regulations down the road. “The crux of our work is developing plants that need fewer pesticides, less fertilizer, less water. In essence we’re building a more efficient corn. So, if government drives more intense regulations, than in a sense we are partners in this quest of a cleaner and better environment — while also generating the genetics to produce more food, fuel and fiber of a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050!”