Big, evil corporate giant (read with sarcasm) Monsanto has a new product coming to market according to its blog Beyond the Rows. Sweet corn genetically modified to express the Bt insecticide trait that prevails in much of the conventional corn market. This trait allows the plant to create a toxin that is harmful to certain pests that try to eat it.
Now you’ll find a lot of naysayers in the all-natural food and environmentalist movements. There’s all kinds of places online where you can find people making all sorts of horrible predictions about GMO crops and super weeds and bugs, etc. I happen to find it’s often the case that environmental activists often refuse or do not want to see the benefit of a new technology.
They will tell you that the “industrial” type of row crop farming that I do consumes more resources that it produces, when the fact is we are producing more all the time with less inputs thanks to technologies like the Bt toxin.
Here’s what Monsanto has to say about Bt:
“The Bt proteins in our corn are considered an environmentally-friendly way to control insects, because they are toxic only to a few specific types of insect pest. The Bt proteins and the bacterium that produces them are found naturally in soil. In fact, Bt proteins are used by organic growers to control these same insect pests; Bt proteins are the active ingredient in Dipel, the bio-insecticide most widely used by organic growers.”
Wait a minute. Organic farmers use Bt too? Why yes they do. I believe there is a common misconception by some of the non-farm population that a farm like mine hoses down everything with chemicals and that organic farms don’t use any pesticides. Neither of those is true. Keep this in mind while you are reading. I DO NOT take issue with organic farming. I only take issue with those who make false claims about what I do to make a living.
I don’t grow any sweet corn, but I do grow corn with the Bt trait so this new product is of interest to me. How can this new product be good for the environment? It allows the farmer to make less passes across the field for one thing. The need to treat for pests is greatly reduced meaning a farmer doesn’t have to make another trip across a field in a sprayer for application of insecticide. That’s less insecticide applied, less fuel for the sprayer, fewer hours on the sprayer slowing its rate of depreciation, less compaction in the field and so on.
You might wonder about those super bugs I mentioned earlier. Stands to reason if we go after all the pests with Bt, eventually resistance will build up. I covered that in Genetic Refugees. Now it is true that there are reports of some insects showing resistance, but one of the reasons may be that not all farmers are doing their part planting refuge acres. They should be. They are doing themselves and the rest of us a disservice by choosing not to plant a refuge. There are already rumblings of regulatory changes in this area. Farmers may need to show what seed they have purchased in order to show they purchased refuge varieties as well. I’m not a big fan of more government intervention, but I think this kind of thing is what government is for. Seed companies are at the forefront on this issue as well since they are beginning to provide refuge in a bag. That’s where up to 95% of the corn in a bag of seed is a traited variety and the remainder is a refuge. A simpler process than having two different bags. Although that’s not hard to figure out either. We do it all the time.
The biggest news to me on the Monsanto blog post wasn’t that they now have GMO sweet corn, but how much less insecticide could potentially be applied to sweet corn acreage with this new hybrid.
“Sweet corn makes up less than one percent of total corn acreage in the United States (field corn and sweet corn), yet accounts for 40% of all corn insecticide treatments. Our sweet corn allows farmers to reduce insecticide use by up to 85 percent while still providing fresh, tasty ears of the product.”
Seems to me that kind of puts a dent in the “Big Ag” companies only genetically modifying seeds to sell more chemicals. How about them apples? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Update 5/9/2012 Biofortified (one of my favorite sites) has a new post called “The Frustrating Lot of the Sweet Corn Grower.” I learned a few things about the challenges of growing sweet corn. Here are a couple highlights, but I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself.
“At best a grower might need to make ~4 insecticide sprays/season. In some areas it can require 20 or more! One reason why so many sprays may be necessary is that the spray only does any good while the caterpillars are still outside of the corn plant. Once they get inside, they have an easy meal.”
“Because the corn is husked, the USDA pesticide residue analysis of sweet corn almost never finds any detectable residues (even the misleading“dirty dozen list” says sweet corn is cool).”