Genetic Refugees

There are those who would have the general population believe biotech crops are grown solely with profits in mind with total disregard for the surrounding environment.  What you might not hear about are the things farmers must do to protect the pests that rob them of those profitable yields.

I’m talking about refuge acres.  Let’s say you want to plant corn hybrids with insect resistant traits protecting them from corn rootworm and/or corn borer.  You cannot plant all of your corn acres to these traits.  The EPA requires that you plant non-resistant varieties as well within a certain distance of the resistant ones.  Why do we need to do this?  If all your acres are planted to resist insect pressure then you greatly increase the chances of the pest becoming resistant itself, defeating the purpose of your planting intentions to begin with and shortening the lifespan of the technology. 

It may seem counter productive but you don’t want to kill all the pests that could potentially cut yield.  The refuge acres give them a place to feed ensuring those bugs will be around again next year, but the science that protects crops against them remains viable as well.

Until the last year or so if you planted resistant corn you needed 20% of your acres planted to refuge.  Now that is all changing.  Monsanto and Dow have SmartStax seed which now only needs 5% refuge by EPA standards.  Another new development is “refuge in a bag” which means you have resistant and refuge varieties in the same bag, making planting a lot simpler.  So even though the rules are changing, know that farmers are well aware that if we don’t take care of the environment that allows us to grow great crops that it won’t sustain us forever.

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Comments

  1. Would it be wrong to assume that these protections are not only for profit in the long run but also to prevent food shortages? If farmers didn’t protect their crop and the environment, wouldn’t it be possible to see critical food shortages during years of higher crop infestation?

    1. Every little bit helps. And let’s not forget it’s not just food. We’re also talking about fuel and fiber for clothing. A lot of the genes bred or placed into our crops don’t automatically increase yield on their own. If you plant Bt corn or cotton this year and there is little to no insect pressure, then your refuge acres may very well yield just as much (sometimes even better) than your resistant hybrid. In that case I suppose you could say you spent too much on that seed, but you can’t really look at it that way because you never know what the yield is until you take it out of the field. A lot of times these genes are only protecting yield potential in any given year, but in the long run, yes, these types of things increase our overall production and simplify the process. We are making less trips to the field with equipment, using less fuel and other resources, reducing soil compaction via less traffic, and apply less chemicals to the soil.

  2. Nice piece, Brian. I like how you added “So even though the rules are changing, know that farmers are well aware that if we don’t take care of the environment that allows us to grow great crops that it won’t sustain us forever.”

    I heard a farmer say recently that ‘every farmer is an environmentalist’ and that really stuck with me. Your post today helps explain the why and how behind that statement.

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