When the biotechnology revolution hit the U.S. corn industry, it did more than change the way people farmed. For NCGA, it changed the roles grower leaders had to play if they were going to represent their members effectively.
“With biotech, early on we could see this was something new,” says Leon Corzine, who chaired NCGA’s Biotechnology Working Group before becoming an NCGA officer.
“The biotechnology providers were pushing it out to the farmers, and from a farmer perspective, a lot were excited about what biotech could do. But we could see there were marketplace concerns with this new technology and acceptance was an issue,” he recalls.
“NCGA had to tell the providers, ‘We know this is great technology, but you’ve got to take it slower.’”
Established in 2000, the working group was initially just four growers with help from two staff members, he remembers.
“We saw the huge potential in biotech, and we had a good understanding in the working group that it had to be a ‘plus’ for corn growers, agriculture and our country, but we knew we wouldn’t get the technology if it couldn’t come to market. That left us walking a tight line.”
Fred Yoder, an Ohio grower, served as the working group’s first chairman.
“One thing corn did was really different from soybeans’ approach,” Yoder says. “Soybeans went to the European Union and got Roundup Ready beans okayed, but they had to agree to no more after that.
“When the corn growers faced the Bt corn issue, we knew the next generation [of biotech seed] was going to be a vast improvement, so we couldn’t make the same kind of agreement. I think that was a real key to get the technology going in corn. The companies were willing to invest in the research because they knew in the end they would have a market,” Yoder concludes.
“And if we couldn’t export the corn everywhere, we could begin channeling, and we could move forward working with Japan’s approval system. The EU just got left behind.”
As the debate over biotechnology grew, NCGA took on multiple new challenges.
“At one point, people were planting [biotech seed with partial approval] who didn’t even know it,” says Corzine. “Farmers didn’t know the importance of paying attention to biotech regulations.”
Soon, the NCGA was promoting the Know Before You Grow program to inform growers about responsible marketing. Year by year, a concerted effort by NCGA and the state grower associations provided up-to-the-minute data on the regulatory status of biotech hybrids at meetings, in printed materials, and on the Internet. Novecta, an initiative launched by the Iowa and Illinois state associations, offered training and certification for growers who wanted to grow higher-value corn hybrids and channel the output into specific markets.
NCGA also helped growers who faced damages because cross-contamination had made their crop less marketable, providing information on approved marketing and use alternatives, and keeping pressure on genetics companies to respond to problems through a user-friendly process.
At the same time, NCGA’s influence with other powers in the biotechnology debate was growing.
StarLink was the first biotechnology product with split approval – approved for use in feed but not in food – Corzine explains. “That became a huge issue, and it cost us market share.
“We had told the regulators, ‘Don’t allow commercial sales until we have full approval in the U.S. and major export markets.’ And we had told the seed industry about the risks. We were almost prophets in that respect, and it brought us credibility and leverage. Going forward, we could say, ‘This is what you’re going to do, and this is what will or won’t work on the farm.’”
With each step forward, NCGA leaders built on what they had learned to prevent a repeat experience. Every year, they met not just with the technology providers in the seed industry but with the start-up companies doing basic research in genetics.
“Those folks wanted to know what corn growers needed,” says Corzine.
Working with the U.S. Grains Council, NCGA also reached out to foreign customers alarmed or confused about the new technology – and not just to the major export markets, like Japan and Mexico. In one year alone, Yoder traveled to Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Austria to represent America’s corn growers at biotechnology discussions.
Beginning in 2003, NCGA and the council launched a major initiative to reach key decision makers around the world. Not limited to grain buyers, the International Biotechnology Information Conference brought foreign journalists, regulators, scientists and opinion leaders to the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt each autumn to learn the science and facts underpinning biotechnology.
The program, which ran until 2010, exposed participants to each step of the production process: seed company, farm, grain terminal, processing plant, and supermarket shelves. By 2009, hundreds of leaders from more than 70 nations had gone home with a deeper understanding of biotechnology. The result has been a growing cadre of influential leaders worldwide who are better prepared to make rational choices about biotechnology use and regulations.
In the 11 years since the StarLink controversy erupted, as the biotechnology debate has continued, NCGA has become an established leader on the issue.
Corzine summarizes another reason NCGA has been so effective: “We are able to represent a federation of states, a big block of farmers. We send producers to the meetings who can sit down with the heads of companies, with the Environmental Protection Agency, with the U.S. Congress and talk the issue. “Any questions on production, we can answer. We can say, ‘This is important to me as a farmer.’ It’s important that they know we are farmers speaking for farmers. The biotechnology effort helped brand NCGA with that label. Even within NCGA, we didn’t realize early on how important that would be.”