Scientists Find Significant Flaws in GE Corn Tied to Accelerated Resistance
A group of 22 prominent entomologists has submitted formal comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) casting doubt on the future viability of certain varieties of genetically engineered (GE) corn. The entomologists, including researchers from land grant institutions in the Corn Belt and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, cite increasing evidence that the western corn rootworm is developing resistance to a toxin derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is inserted into seeds. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that when used in non-genetically engineered forms is an important biological pesticide for organic and sustainable farmers. The entomologists identify significant flaws in current practices for managing insect resistance to Bt corn and caution that failure to implement a series of alternative measures based on an integrated pest management (IPM) approach would result in all forms of Bt losing its effectiveness.
The entomologists’ comments were cited recently in published research documenting the first field-evolved resistance of the western corn rootworm to certain Bt strains. They draw a connection between this research and field reports of greater than expected rootworm damage (an indication of emerging resistance) first observed in 2009. Detections of greater than expected damage grew into substantial problem areas in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota over the past two years. The entomologists concluded that these reports, combined with supplemental laboratory studies, indicate that western corn rootworm resistance to the Bt toxin Cry3Bb1is solidly established in the field and likely spreading. Cry3Bb1 was the first Bt toxin inserted into corn and is now partnered with a second toxin, Cry34/35Ab1, in the widely planted SmartStax© seed technology used by Monsanto and licensed to other seed producers.
The entomologists expressed concern that rapid emergence of resistance to the Cry3Bb1 toxin will quickly compromise the effectiveness of all other toxins with which it is partnered in so-called “pyramid” seeds. Planting more of a failing toxin and/or more of an effective toxin over a larger area increases the risk of resistance. They specifically question recent EPA decisions to significantly reduce the size of the non-Bt corn refuges that growers raising Bt corn are required to maintain. These refuges, which are mandated as part of registering each variety of Bt corn as a pesticide, are designed to ensure that breeding occurs between non-resistant rootworms from the untreated corn and any resistant individuals that emerge from the areas planted in Bt varieties. Such breeding is intended to dilute the frequency of genes that impart resistance and inhibit their transference to the next generation of rootworms.
The entomologists conclude that the reduced size requirements for refuges could significantly accelerate the emergence of rootworms resistant to the multiple toxin strains expressed in Bt corn. They state that further research would be necessary to support EPA’s decision to drop the refuge size requirements, typically set at 20 percent when Bt corn varieties were first planted, to as low as 5 percent for more recent registrations. Their comments also question EPA’s approval of the “refuge in a bag” procedure that allows farmers to inter-seed Bt and non-Bt varieties rather than establish discrete areas for each. The principal benefit of the refuge in a bag procedure is convenience, since farmers can mix seed once and plant continuously. Recent compliance data that seed companies are required to collect indicates that upwards of 40 percent of farmers are not complying with the refuge requirements currently in place.
The entomologists advise EPA to redirect its approach to resistance management in Bt corn by requiring farmers to adopt more proven IPM strategies. They noted that alternating the mode of action was a fundamental principle of IPM, yet EPA currently allows farmers to plant seed varieties expressing the same toxin or toxins in the same field year after year, even in areas of known significant rootworm pressure. The entomologists also express concern that too few varieties of non-Bt corn are commercially available because the seed companies were including the toxins in all their high yielding (and higher priced) varieties. They conclude that, in the absence of acceptable non-Bt alternatives, farmers find themselves compelled to plant Bt varieties, even in regions where that trait offers little to no commercial value.
The western corn rootworm is a potentially devastating pest that does its greatest damage during its larval stage by feeding upon the plant’s roots. Severe feeding inhibits the plant’s ability to absorb moisture and nutrients and opens a pathway for attack from soil-borne pathogens. Before monoculture production became standard practice for many farms, the western rootworm could be effectively managed by crop rotations, including pasture, hay, and legume crop components because the insect starves in fields not planted in corn.
Christian Krupke, Ph.D. of Purdue University and an expert on the adverse environmental impacts of GE crops, signed on to the letter. Dr. Krupke, who recently published groundbreaking research on the exposure of honey bees and other pollinators to neonicotinoid pesticides applied to corn seed, will be speaking at Healthy Communities, Beyond Pesticides’ 30th National Pesticide Forum, March 30-31 at Yale University.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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