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Farmers question genetically engineered corn's effectiveness

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Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State entomology professor, examines rootworms in his lab. (Clay Masters/Iowa Public Radio)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Clay Masters reports for Iowa Public Radio. He previously reported for Harvest Public Media while based at NET Nebraska.

Corn has been good to farmers and as this year’s record corn forecast indicates, Midwestern farmers can’t seem to plant enough of the grain. Even with concerns growing about the effectiveness of today’s high-tech genetically engineered seeds, farmers aren’t backing down.

Corn concerns

The land is dry and the wind blows hard in Sac County, Iowa. For Darwin Bettin, it’s a good day to be inside selling insurance. He also farms 500 acres of corn and soybeans in western Iowa.

“It seems like just about the day I took this job selling insurance the farm turned around and got good also,” Bettin said. “That’s just the way it has been.”
 
Bettin was born and raised in Sac County. While this year’s crop is planted, he’s a little anxious at times, because of what happened last year.

“The neighbor’s corn was standing up and mine was leaning over and I just jokingly told my wife, ‘If we hadn’t had this new fancy corn I’d say that looks like rootworm damage,’” Bettin said.

After a closer look, it was rootworm damage. The “fancy corn,” as Bettin puts it, is Bt corn, a seed which is engineered to express a trait that is supposed to kill rootworm when it eats at a plant’s roots. Bettin gets his seed from his local dealer and says while they refunded him the fees for inserting the trait into the seed, they didn’t pay off the money he lost from the rootworm damage.

“Eighty acres equals $100,000,” Bettin said. “They refund their $13,000 technology fees and walk away from the other $96,000.”

Still, Bettin is planting Bt corn on corn again this year.

Rootworm research

While farmers are concerned about their yields and profits, researchers who study corn rootworm are honed in on the long term effects rootworm damage. That’s because the problems with rootworm resistance have been showing up in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota.

Genetically engineered rise

The USDA tracks the adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Since 2000, the percentage of corn planted that was genetically engineered in some way has risen steadily.  Genetically engineered corn includes Bt, herbicide tolerant and stacked gene corn varieties.

 

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (link)

In March, researchers wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency with a sense of urgency. In it, the scientists call for big changes in the way biotech companies and seed dealers battle the bug. Many ag researchers are worried that rootworm issues could be just the beginning for farmers, according to Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State entomology professor who signed the letter.

“There were concerns about what this resistance might mean for other commercialized Bt products,” Gassman said.

Inside Gassman’s temperature-controlled greenhouse lab on Iowa State’s campus, there are a series of lamps suspended above silver funnels. Researchers are running tests on a variety of seeds from different companies, but seed from ag giant Monsanto seed is the one that has shown the lack of resistance to rootworm.

That’s probably partly because, Gassmann says, Monsanto’s seed has been on the market the longest. In 2003, it was the first Bt seed available commercially. Since then, Bt seeds have become such an intricate part of corn farming that it’s hard to find corn seeds that don’t have some kind of Bt technology.

“In many the ways I think the data provide an early warning that people need to be more careful about how these products are used and they need to be used in a more integrated way – in other words, with a variety of tactics,” Gassman said. “Farmers shouldn’t just be relying on this same tactic year after year to control the pest.”

Options. That’s what the scientists say farmers need from tech companies. In other words, they don’t want companies to insert the trait in all of their products.

For its part, Monsanto says farmers do have choices. Luke Samuel, a product development manager at Monsanto, says farmers are the ones who make the final decisions on what to plant.

“We really feel like we have a great selection of products for growers,” Samuel said. “Each year growers go out and make decisions about what they want to plant – what crop they want to plant. As we look at our product lineup, we feel really good about growers having the choice to really fit the best product on their acres.”

Both Samuel and Gassmann agree that rotating corn to soybeans is probably the best solution to a rootworm infestation. Rootworms can’t survive on soybeans. But planting less corn? That can be a tough sell.

Economic decisions

Five miles west of Darwin Bettin’s farm, Russ Pickhinke farms 2,000 acres and has for more than 20 years. He hasn’t seen the rootworm problem on any of his acres. But Pickhinke is considering adding granule insecticide – an older method of insect control – to his corn fields next year, in addition to using the BT corn, as a form of insurance.

“You make more money on corn,” Pickhinke said. “The last three years, it’s kind of a no-brainer to do corn on corn. The market seems to want more corn. China’s growing and they can’t seem to produce enough corn to keep their supply happy.”

No matter the warnings from scientists, many farmers are thinking as much about the market as the bug.