By Ken Roseboro
One solution to the challenges of feeding the world may come—not from the labs of genetic engineers—but from the timeless wisdom of Native Americans and a dedicated corn breeder from Montana.
Dave Christensen felt like he had found an ancient treasure. That was how Christensen, an organic farmer in Big Timber, Montana, described finding rare corn seed that had been grown by Mandan Native Americans for several hundred years in the northern Great Plains. “Mandan Maize” seed produced corn that withstood the harsh, dry, and cold climate of the Plains.
In the late 1970s, Christensen began growing heirloom varieties of cold hardy corn for food. Modern corn would not grow in the mountains where Christensen lived, so he had to grow the heirloom varieties. He researched and found that some lines of Mandan Maize still existed, preserved by Native American families and descendents of homesteaders. “Most of the seed I found had been in jars for 20 years,” Christensen says.
He then started cross-breeding the native corns, aiming to develop the hardiest varieties, ones that would thrive and produce food in the cold and dry, high elevations of Montana. “I dedicated my life to saving corns native to the west,” he says.
While modern corn hybrids originated in the eastern United States with soils rich in organic matter and mild climates with ample rainfall, Mandan maize grew in western soils that have little organic matter and extreme, cold and dry climates. The two corns may look similar, but their genetics are completely different. “One metabolizes like an orchid, the other like a cactus,” Christensen says.
Christensen was alone in his work; no one else was breeding corn to grow in the west. He worked 16 hours a day even though there was no foreseeable market for the corn. “I kept at it anyway,” Christensen says, describing his work as “the project my soul needed to be completed.” He was also encouraged by supporters who said the unique gene pool would be valuable to the world as a source of breeding material for growing corn in drought and cold conditions.
“Something never created before”
After years of evaluating and crossing the seeds, Christensen created a large and diverse gene pool and exposed the corns to the harsh conditions of his Montana home. He selected the hardiest variety from which to breed. This open pollinated variety, which he named Painted Mountain corn, was unique because it could be grown at both high altitudes and latitudes. “No corn has ever grown at altitudes of 5000 feet in Montana,” Christensen says. “I created something never created before.”
Painted Mountain corn is loaded with genetic diversity, expressed in the full spectrum of colors seen in the kernels: purple, blue, red, pink, orange, yellow, and white. “It makes picking each ear a surprise and delight,” Christensen says.
Painted Mountain corn grows fast in cold climates where other corns struggle to survive. Yields range from 50 to 70 bushels per acre, which is good for corn grown in harsh conditions. “Hybrid corn varieties often fail completely in these conditions,” Christensen says.
Painted Mountain corn is nutritious for people and animals. It is high in anthocyanins, which are beneficial anti-oxidants. It can be ground into flour to make bread, tortillas, or cereal. It is high in protein for use as animal feed.
Successfully grown in North Korea
Christensen’s work attracted the attention of agricultural officials in North Korea, which has suffered severe famines. North Korean farmers tried growing commercial corn hybrids from the U.S., but the plants did not produce in the country’s cold mountainous terrain. The only grain they could produce was a primitive barley. North Korean researchers traveled to the U.S. and discovered Christensen’s work. They invited him to come to North Korea, an honor in itself considering the country’s distrust of outsiders. In 2003, he traveled there, taking three tons of Painted Mountain corn seed with him. He worked with plant breeders and the country’s agriculture department to introduce the corn. Production was successful. “They found it would help stop starvation,” Christensen says.
Based on the success of his corn in North Korea, Christensen believes other countries could also benefit. “This is proof; there are many climates like that in the world,” he says. Successful trials of Painted Mountain corn were also grown in Siberia.
Christensen named his project Seed We Need, based on the importance of introducing food corn varieties to people in harsh climates and mountainous regions.
Corn borer resistance
Over the last three years, Christensen has received a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to develop corn varieties resistant to the European corn borer. He is working with Margaret Smith at Cornell University and Walter Goldstein at the Michael Fields Institute on corn borer resistance.
Unlike genetically engineered Bt corn varieties that contain a pesticidal protein, which threatens human health and the environment, corn varieties developed by Christensen, Smith, and Goldstein have natural resistance bred into them. The researchers located corn varieties with corn borer resistance growing in tropical regions and cross-bred them with North American varieties. The aim is to provide organic farmers with corn varieties that resist the corn borer naturally—without pesticides and genetic engineering.
“We’re trying to create an array of genetic resources that farmers can use,” Christensen says.
Another major challenge facing organic farmers is pollen from genetically engineered corn that contaminates organic corn. To this end, Christensen is breeding pollen- blocking traits into his Painted Mountain Corn.
GMOs are an ongoing challenge. Christensen must test his corn periodically to ensure there is no contamination. He views testing as a necessary expense. “It takes lots of work and cost, but I can’t afford to lose my life’s work. I would rather put money into testing.”
Monsanto Company recently announced that it would introduce the world’s first GE drought resistant corn varieties. Christensen sees genetic engineering as a limited approach to drought resistance. “Just infusing one gene won’t do as much good as breeding western corn that has lived 5000 years in the desert and contains multiple systems to adapt to drought.”
With climate change creating extremes in weather, drought tolerance will be an increasingly valued trait in food plants. Painted Mountain Corn provides one solution, and Christensen aims to make seed available worldwide by 2012. He is convinced that his ancient corn can give people in harsh climates worldwide a modern tool to better feed themselves, instead of relying on the promises of the biotechnology industry with their claims of feeding the world.
“We have a lot to give the world,” he says.
For more information about Dave Christensen’s work, visit www.seedweneed.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Organic & Non-GMO Report that Ken Roseboro edits.