March 12, 2012

Monsanto Corn Rootworm Subject Of Warning To EPA

The corn rootworm -- one of the most economically destructive insects of maize in the United States -- is threatening to become agriculture´s worst nightmare as biotech corn is continually losing its resistance to the damaging pests.

The problem is so severe that a group of scientists wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warning that action needs to be taken to rid agriculture of the devastating insects.

The problem was first made aware of last year, when reports surfaced that the insect “found a chink in the armor” of genetically engineered corn. In several different places across the corn belt, the insects have developed resistance to an inserted gene that is supposed to kill them.

Corn production is critical for food, animal feed and production of ethanol -- and farmers have been increasingly reliant on bio-engineered corn genetically modified to be toxic to the corn rootworm.

“This is not something that is a surprise... but it is something that needs to be addressed,” Joseph Spencer, a corn entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, part of the University of Illinois, told Reuters.

Spencer, one of the 22 corn experts who sent a letter to the EPA, said the problem is worrisome.

In order to slow down or prevent the spread of resistance, the scientists are calling for big changes in the way biotech companies, seed dealers and farmers fight the corn rootworm. They are urging the EPA to act now before it is too late.

But what the scientists are asking of the EPA, in actuality, goes beyond the capabilities of what the agency can do under current law. For example, the scientists want seed companies to stop inserting anti-rootworm genes into their most productive hybrid seed lines. This practice, say the scientists, means that farmers “often have few options” apart from rootworm-protected seeds -- even in areas where rootworms are not a threat.

When farmers plant hybrids that contain the same gene, year after year, it significantly increases the chances that the gene quickly becomes useless, as insects have a tendency to become resistant to it.

Monsanto introduced its corn rootworm protected products in 2003 and they have proved popular with most farmers in key growing areas around the country. Sales of biotech corn are a key growth driver for Monsanto.

The genetically altered corn is supposed to reduce the need to put insecticides into soil. But plant experts say the biotech corn is losing its effectiveness, making plants vulnerable to rootworm damage and increasing loss of production.

Patrick Porter, of Texas A&M University, who coordinated drafting of the letter, told NPR blog The Salt that their recommendations will most likely be dismissed as “impractical” by many farmers and seed companies. But the group´s credentials are impressive, and should be taken seriously, Porter noted.

If the recommendations were put into practice, it would compel wrenching changes in the way that major seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont breed and market their product.

Monsanto, responding in a statement to the scientists´ letter, asserted that rootworms caused excessive damage to just 0.2 percent of the acres where farmers planted Monsanto´s rootworm-protected corn. The products continue to provide corn farmers with “strong protection against this damaging pest,” it added.

Monsanto has suggested growers should rotate the corn with its biotech soybeans, use another of its biotech corn products and use insecticides to try to combat the problem.

Continuing to plant a failing technology only increases the resistance development risk, the scientists said in the letter. The scientists added that using insecticides along with the biotech corn, as Monsanto advised, is not a good approach because it elevates production costs for farmers and masks the extent and severity of building insect resistance.

“Recommendations to apply insecticides to protect transgenic Biotech corn rootworm corn strikes us as a clear admission that the Cry3Bb1 toxin is no longer providing control adequate to protect yield,” the scientists wrote. “When insecticides overlay transgenic technology, the economic and environmental advantages of rootworm-protected corn quickly disappear.”

Two experts who had no involvement in the recent letter, Fred Gould of North Carolina State University and Bruce Tabashnik, at the University of Arizona, have also urged the EPA to require farmers to plant much larger “refuges” of corn that is not toxic to rootworms. They said it is the only reliable way to slow down insect resistance.

But Porter said that is not possible. There simply is not enough conventional corn seed for such large refuges. He is worried that sudden regulatory shifts could disrupt production altogether. “If we do the wrong thing, we could see corn at $15 per bushel,” he told The Salt. That´s more than twice what corn costs today.

EPA Office of Pesticide Programs Director Steven Bradbury could not be reached for comment on the issue.


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