Mandaamin Institute Breeding Nutrient Efficient Corn Naturally

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From the Great Lakes through the Great Plains, nothing dominates the American agricultural landscape like corn. Thanks to breeding and technology, American farmers are incredibly efficient at growing corn. Last season, corn yields averaged a whopping 175 bushels per acre, and American farmers grew a record 15.2 billion bushels, or 853 billion pounds of corn. 

In addition to being abundant, corn is also a versatile crop.  It can be used for food such as grits, cornmeal, corn flour, as well as animal feed for hogs, beef and dairy cattle, and poultry.  Thanks to advances in science and technology corn is also turned into a wide area of food additives such as high-fructose corn syrup, as well as bio-fuels like ethanol and even bio-based plastics.

Corn has been bred for high yields, uniformity, and also genetically modified for both herbicide tolerance and insect tolerance. However, one thing that corn is not is nutrient efficient. In order for American farmers to produce such high yields of corn, the amount of fertilizer used is massive. According to Scientific American over 5.6 million tons of nitrogen is applied to corn each year through chemical fertilizers, along with nearly a million tons of nitrogen from manure.  However, because of a variety of factors including weather, soil health, and management practices, much of this fertilizer washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest, and most iconic, example of this. 

One researcher has set out to change all of that. Walter Goldstein, a corn breeder at the non-profit Mandaamin Institute in Southeastern Wisconsin, has been working on breeding corn that is more nutritious, more efficient, and uses less nitrogen. 

With support from the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Goldstein works closely with university researchers in studying the partnerships between corn and diazotrophic (N2 fixing) bacteria, which can result in corn that is more nutrient efficient. Nitrogen efficient corn, which is bred to produce efficiently in low nitrogen environments, relies on beneficial microbial relationships to fix nitrogen and provide the plant with the nutrients needed to grow and thrive without additional applications of nitrogen.

In addition to nitrogen efficiency, the corn that is being bred by the Mandaamin Institute also has the added benefit of being more nutritious. The breeds have similar yields to high preforming commercial varieties, but with higher concentrations of methionine, lysine, oil, and protein.  Additionally, there is an increased carotenoid content in the corn, which can result in eggs and poultry meat higher in carotenoids, which are beneficial for human health.

Thanks to the support of USDA’s OREI, the work being done by the Mandaamin Institute has the potential to revolutionize corn production. By bringing corn breeding to the next level and combining top quality strains for both quality and yield through traditional breeding methods, the Mandaamin Institute is in the process of developing corn that has the capacity to provide more nutrients for both humans and animals, as well as reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers that are negatively impacting our natural resources.

OFRF is committed to working with organic champions and policy makers to increase support for research that helps farmers overcome barriers to transition.  OFRF is advocating for passage of the Organic Agriculture Research Act, which would raise funding for USDA’s Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI) from $20 million to $50 million annually. The increase would help provide the tools and knowledge to support farmers as they seek to meet the growing demand for organic products.

Photo: Mandaamin Institute

This blog was submitted by Michael Stein, Policy Associate at OFRF.