Why there may be a place for open pollinated corn varieties
In spite of the problems detailed in the previous post, a fair minded observer would have to say that the adoption of hybrid corn by commercial farmers has been a huge success. This applies not only to field corn varieties but also to sweet corn varieties. For the latter, the recent development of the extra sweet and super sweet hybrids have been a big hit with consumers in North America. Why then would anyone even think of going back to these old fashioned varieties? As I see it, there are three reasons.
The first has to do with sustainability. The very thing which makes hybrids so successful turns out to be a drawback. A field of hybrid corn has plants which are all genetically identical. If one plant is susceptible to a pest, all of the plants are equally at risk. On the other hand, a field of an open pollinated variety of corn, although containing plants which have similar genetic composition, will have much more genetic diversity. This reduces risk not only from pests but also from abiotic risks such as drought, extreme temperatures, low fertility, etc. Open pollinated corn varieties are less dependent on costly inputs, such as high levels of fertilizer, irrigation water, and pesticides than are hybrids. Yes, hybrids will yield better if given the necessary inputs in a timely fashion. But open pollinated varieties should have better yield stability – the ability to maintain an adequate yield in spite of less than ideal conditions.
The second reason is that open pollinated varieties may fit into local food, slow food, organic food and home gardener production systems better than hybrid varieties in many cases. The seed can be saved and replanted, significantly reducing costs. There are more opportunities for farmers to do selection and breeding on their own farms for specific growing conditions and market needs. Cultural and ethnic specific characteristics can be selected to supply very narrow local niche markets. A home gardener who is hand harvesting corn does not need to have all of the corn mature at the same time. In fact, this may be a disadvantage for sweet corn in a home garden.
The third reason has to do with maintenance of genetic diversity of corn. Many old varieties of corn have been lost since the advent of hybrid corn. Many farmers had consciously or unconsciously developed unique open pollinated varieties of corn as they saved seed from their crop and replanted it. Some of these farmer varieties and “land races” were collected by commercial seed companies and incorporated into hybrid varieties. Some are maintained in USDA seed banks. Some are maintained as heirloom varieties. But many have been lost forever. A large scale revival of open pollinated corn production by commercial growers and home gardeners will help to not only preserve the genetic diversity that still remains but also have it readily available to farmers and future generations of farmers at relatively low cost. I like to think of this as “genetic democracy”. Let a thousand varieties pollinate? Herbivore Reed
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