The project is funded by a USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative grant. Pratt's share of the grant is about $450,000 for the four-year project, which is slated to end in 2014.
For humans and poultry
Organic corn typically is produced for human consumption and to feed to organically raised poultry. Pratt says organic corn producers are especially interested in varieties with high nutritional value and exceptional taste, and perhaps a "harder kernel texture, to make a good corn meal or a good polenta or some really good blue corn tortillas."
In spite of growing demand from health- and ecology-conscious individuals for organic products, organic corn still accounts for only a small share of the market. Non-organic corn, in addition to being consumed by humans, goes to feed livestock and produce ethanol—uses that emphasize high yield over other traits in today's trend to large-scale production agriculture.
Pratt and colleagues are concerned about the long-range risks inherent in the modern tendency to develop small numbers of high-yielding varieties of corn and other crops.
"One of the outcomes of many decades of intensive corn breeding is really to narrow the gene base, which creates what we call 'genetic bottlenecks,'" he says. "The result of that can be genetic vulnerability. So we feel that using very diverse germplasm is an important feature of our (organic corn breeding) program."
"Germplasm is a scientific term for genetic material and in the case of corn breeding essentially refers to seed kernels.
Organic breeding practices do not include gene splicing and other lab-based approaches that result in "genetically modified organisms." Instead, varieties are crossed by the careful pollination of mature plants using pollen derived from plants of other varieties.
This project involves organic corn from Latin America, the Caribbean and an international research center in West Africa, as well as U.S. sources. Pratt says having corn from such varied sources "allows us to have disease-resistant characteristics, grain quality characteristics, just basically an example of biodiversity. We feel that's very important."