Genetically Modified Corn Helps Common Kind, Too

by Dan Charles, NPR

Fifty years of records from cornfields in five Midwestern states show that genetically modified corn has dramatically reduced populations of a common corn-eating worm, the European corn borer. That has put more money in farmers’ pockets, but paradoxically most of the financial benefit went to farmers who did not grow those new kinds of corn.

Why? The fields of conventional corn also had the benefit of fewer worms because the fields of genetically engineered corn nearby had killed off the insects. But the conventional corn was cheaper to grow because the seed costs less. It’s similar to the situation of people who decide not to get a flu shot — if everyone around them gets the shot, they’re still less likely to get the flu. They get the benefit without the pain.

The European corn borer hitched a ride to the New World on a ship from Europe in 1917. It loves corn and quickly spread across corn-growing areas of the Midwest. Every year scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture went into cornfields and counted those worms. The new study, published in the journal Science, is based on those records.

A Pattern Of Infestation

“Amazingly, these data sets were just sitting in filing cabinets,” says William Hutchinson, a specialist on insects at the University of Minnesota.

Hutchinson and a group of colleagues pulled out those files and took a closer look. For most of the past 50 years, he says, there was a regular pattern to the corn borer infestation. “About every six to seven years there would be an outbreak, and then they would naturally decline.”

But starting 14 years ago, corn borer populations started falling and the occasional big outbreaks stopped. Hutchinson says there’s a simple reason: Also 14 years ago, farmers started growing corn that contained a gene inserted in the laboratory. This genetically engineered corn is poison to corn borers, so when the insect larvae start feeding, they die.

The gene came from a kind of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, so the corn is known as Bt corn. It has become extremely popular among farmers.

Advantages Of Conventional Corn

Hutchinson and his colleagues are highlighting the financial rewards of growing conventional corn for their own reasons and they want farmers to keep planting it. If farmers plant only genetically engineered corn, it increases the risk that a new kind of corn borer will emerge — one that is resistant to the effects of Bt.

Bruce Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, says it’s not just a theoretical danger. “There are some other situations where insects have evolved resistance to Bt crops, including Bt corn,” he says. For instance, in Puerto Rico, farmers once grew Bt corn almost exclusively, and insects called fall armyworms used to die when they ate it. Now, they don’t.

To help keep the same thing from happening here, farmers in the U.S. are supposed to plant conventional corn on at least 10 percent of their acres. These are so-called “refuges” where corn borers can live in peace. But some farmers don’t do it.

Tabashnik, who was not involved in the new study, says this research could help convince more farmers that it’s not just a good idea to plant conventional corn — it’s also profitable.

“It’s a wonderful result,” he says. “This example is sort of the poster child for a case where resistance has not evolved. We can see what wonderful benefits there are, and hopefully some of the lessons from this case can be exported and encourage growers more generally, globally, to adopt the refuge strategy.”

Some farmers, in fact, seem already to have figured out that conventional corn can be more profitable. There are reports that demand for Bt corn has leveled off.

But even when farmers want to move away from Bt corn, it’s not always easy for them to do it. Seed companies such as Monsanto and DuPont now sell seeds that contain lots of different traits. Sometimes, if farmers want one of those genes — one that kills the corn rootworm, for instance — they also get others that they may not want, such as the Bt gene that kills the European corn borer.

(Source: NPR)

Leave a Reply

Seed/Biotech Stories
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Delivers Two New Winter Wheat Varieties To Eastern Corn Belt
August 6, 2014
Adding to its portfolio of AgriPro brand wheat varieties, Syngenta introduces SY 007 and SY 474 soft red winter wheat varieties. Read More
Seed/BiotechWater Optimized Seed Flowing Freely
April 1, 2014
As the demand for ag to diminish its water use while maintaining high yields and crop quality increases, three companies are leading the movement to grow more with less water. Read More
Seed/BiotechBayer Applies For Seed Treatment That Protects Against Sudden Death Syndrome
February 26, 2014
If approved, ILeVO seed treatment would be the first product to provide breakthrough protection for soybean seedlings from the soil borne pathogen Fusarium virguliforme, the fungus that causes SDS. Read More
Seed/BiotechSeed Still Central
November 1, 2013
Advancing genetics continue to make seed the crop variable that calls the shots for the season. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100Pinnacle Agriculture Acquires Minnesota Retailer
April 14, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC, ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100,  has successfully acquired Liebl Ag, LLC in Ada, MN.  Read More
CropLife 100CHS, Aurora Cooperative Complete Fertilizer Storage, Grain Shuttle Loading Facility
April 13, 2015
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading cooperative and ranked No. 5 on the CropLife 100, and Aurora Cooperative (ranked No. 21) Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK Acquires Missouri Refined Fuels Terminal
April 2, 2015
Bloomington, IL-based GROWMARK and Magellan Pipeline Co. have entered into an agreement in which GROWMARK will acquire the refined fuels Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Acquires South Dakota Retailer
April 2, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co.’s Agribusiness Division, a recognized leader in precision agriculture technology and the distribution and marketing of plant protection, seed Read More
CropLife 100The McGregor Co. Closes Smith-Kem Acquisition
April 2, 2015
The McGregor Co. — ranked No. 16 on the CropLife 100 list of largest U.S. ag retailers — has completed Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Latest News
StewardshipTFI Announces Renewed Financial Commitment To Fertilize…
April 24, 2015
Today, The Fertilizer Institute’s (TFI) President Chris Jahn announced that TFI and over 100 partners will more than double existing Read More
Industry NewsMACA Names New Ambassador Coordinator
April 23, 2015
The Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) has named Michelle Kilper as its new Ambassador Coordinator. Michelle is a graduate of Read More
ManagementAg Retailer’s Role In Local Policy Making; Raising The …
April 23, 2015
CropLife’s Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj review their recent travels, precision ag efforts in Washington, DC, and the role of Read More
TMX-2050 In-Cab Display Launch Run Screen
Precision AgIn-Cab Computing 2015: Connectivity, Compatibility Take…
April 23, 2015
In terms of in-cab computing solutions for the agriculture market, companies like Case IH, Topcon, Trimble, John Deere and Raven Read More
USDA
StewardshipUSDA Outlines Building Blocks For Climate Smart Agricul…
April 23, 2015
Today, the USDA has announced a comprehensive and detailed approach to support farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners in their Read More
Industry NewsArysta LifeScience Welcomes New Territory Sales Manager
April 23, 2015
Arysta LifeScience North America recently announced the addition of Kaitlyn Acaster to the Canadian sales team. Acaster will fill the Read More
Crop InputsMarrone Bio Innovations Opens New Research Greenhouse
April 23, 2015
Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. (MBI), a leading provider of bio-based pest management and plant health products for the agriculture, turf Read More
Crop InputsDuPont Acquires Taxon Biosciences
April 23, 2015
DuPont has agreed to acquire Taxon Biosciences, Inc., a leading microbiome discovery company. This acquisition will build on DuPont’s in-house capabilities Read More
Farmer on tablet
ManagementStudy: Consumers Don’t Care If U.S. Farmers Feed …
April 23, 2015
“We’re feeding the world” is a mantra often used by those involved in farming and food to build support for Read More
Industry NewsCorporate Responsibility Magazine Names Monsanto One Of…
April 22, 2015
Corporate Responsibility Magazine (CR Magazine) named Monsanto Co. to its 100 Best Corporate Citizens List for 2015. This is the Read More
FertilizerSpring Nitrogen Management: Form And Timing
April 22, 2015
Most corn producers have planned their spring nitrogen program for 2015, and many have already started to implement their program. Read More
FMC 3Rive 3D
Industry NewsFMC Corp. Completes Acquisition Of Cheminova
April 22, 2015
FMC Corp. has completed the closing of its acquisition of Cheminova A/S, a multinational crop protection company based in Denmark Read More
SoftwareSyngenta Expands AgriEdge Excelsior Nationwide For 2015
April 22, 2015
Growers across the country can now take the guesswork out of improving their farm’s production, land value, farm stewardship and Read More
Cornfield near Sioux City Iowa
HerbicidesU.S. Regulators May Start Testing Food For Glyphosate R…
April 21, 2015
U.S. regulators may start testing food products for residues of the world’s most widely used herbicide, EPA told Reuters’ Carey Read More
FungicidesBRANDT Adds Zonix Biofungicide To Portfolio
April 21, 2015
BRANDT has added Zonix biofungicide to its rapidly expanding line of organic and sustainable products. Zonix is a contact fungicide that Read More
ManagementMissouri Experts: Spring Planting Slow Start Won’…
April 20, 2015
In the first of the agronomy teleconferences with Extension specialists, University of Missouri Extension climatologist Pat Guinan said the slow Read More
Carl Casale of CHS
Industry NewsCooperative CHS Reports Net Income Of $471.5 Million Fo…
April 20, 2015
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, has announced company net income Read More
Industry NewsCHS Insurance Names New Director Of Sales
April 17, 2015
Bryan Lewis has been named director of sales for CHS Insurance, the nation’s largest agribusiness insurance broker and full-service insurance Read More