News Column

Hybrid crops that used to offer resistance to rootworm no match for Mother Nature

June 22, 2014

By Steve Tarter, Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.



June 22--Farmers in Illinois and across the nation are facing a problem: the technology that proved so valuable for over a decade, that saved them labor -- and the environment from the overuse of chemicals -- is coming up short.

Press reports lay out the situation: "Many farmers are returning to the use of soil insecticides as rootworm resistance to Bt-corn hybrids surfaces more frequently across the Corn Belt," noted Emily Unglesbee's story for DTN earlier this year.

Dan Flynn of Food Safety News described the western corn rootworm as "the billion-dollar pest" with an immunity to Monsanto's Bt seed while Jacob Bunge of the Wall Street Journal said the rootworm's ability to overcome genetically-modified crops represented "a setback for biotech seed makers."

To understand the farmer's present predicament, one has to review scientific advances in agriculture. U.S. corn yields have gone from 72 bushels an acre in 1970 to 153 bushels an acre by 2010.

In Illinois, farmers can raise over 200 bushels of corn an acre thanks to seeds that come "stacked" with traits such as fighting off rootworm or controlling specific weeds.

St. Louis-based Monsanto began selling a genetically modified product in the 1990s with seeds resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide that killed the weeds around it.

The use of glyphosate, which Monsanto marketed as Roundup, spread across the farm belt like wildfire -- rising from 15 percent of all herbicide sold in 1996 to 89 percent by 2006. Farmers raised big crops and used less pesticide while biotech companies made big money.

But Mother Nature doesn't stand still. Weeds and bugs began to develop a resistance to the biotech formulas.

"Monsanto's breakthrough was so effective it was virtually impossible to screw up," said Chuck Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, referring to how Roundup allowed farmers to avoid the tank mixes and pre-emergent applications of herbicide that had become part of the production agriculture cycle.

Covering 90 percent of U.S. soybean acres with biotech seeds may have taken the focus off plant science, however, he said.

"(Seed companies) simply did not pay much attention to the concerns of scientists on the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds," said Benbrook.

"By 2005 it was clear that the crisis that what some weed scientists had predicted -- if (glyphosate) was relied on too much -- was happening," he said.

"In 2004, Syngenta used me as an adviser and put out a responsible set of recommendations: don't treat two or three acres with glyphosate. It was the first meaningful step (to fight weed resistance) by the industry," said Benbrook.

- "Unfortunately, other companies would not go along with it. Monsanto officials said it wasn't necessary, that other tools were available. Because of that, Syngenta stopped pushing its own policy. By 2005, it was just a memory," he said.

Genetically modified crops gained acceptance in the market because they work, stated Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, pointing to present GM adoption rates of soybeans (95 percent), and corn (90 percent).

"It's simply because they're better seeds. Our study shows that in the event that farmers were forced to switch to non-GM crops, and we tried to make foods GMO-free, food prices would increase 15 to 25 percent or more," he said.

Yet Benbrook warns that farmers now find themselves on "a pesticide treadmill."

"(Chemical companies) are making it easy. Look at the ads in farm publications where three or four different herbicides are suggested," he said, referring to pesticide applications now recommended on top of use of biotech seeds.

Those chemicals represent big business on the farm. U.S. farmers spent $13.7 billion on agricultural chemicals in 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Not only are farmers being urged to spray more, other costs are involved, said Benbrook. "The companies are going back to old high-risk chemistry like 2,4-D, dicambra and paraquat -- chemicals that can drift, damaging other crops, and represent human health problems," he said.

The chemical industry is now producing a second generation of herbicide-tolerant crops with herbicides like 2,4-D and dicambra in the seed just as Monsanto did with glyphosate, said Benbrook.

"It will work for a few years but it won't take long for resistance to occur," he said.

That could mean real trouble for agriculture, said Benbrook. "Five to seven years down the road, none of the major herbicides will work well anymore," he said.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists who worked on genetic engineering projects in the 1980s, said farmers need to be supported with alternatives.

"It keeps the weeds off balance when you really mix it up," he said.

Cover crops, crop rotations and different tillage techniques are among the suggestions that need to be brought into that mix, said Gurian-Sherman.

More of the U.S. Department of Agriculture research budget also needs to go toward sustainable agriculture, he suggested.

Steve Tarter is Journal Star business editor. Tarter's phone number is 686-3260. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter

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(c)2014 Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)

Visit the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.) at www.PJStar.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Journal Star (Peoria, IL)


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