New technology always brings along some unintended issue - good and bad. A new study published late last week in the journal Science shows that widespread use of Bt corn in the Midwest has suppressed populations of European corn borer, but the key benefactors may not only be the farmers who invested in the tech.
Turns out that neighboring farmers who didn't spend the cash for the traits also picked up some profit thanks to the biotech trait. At least that's what the multi-state study shows.
The research, conducted by several Midwest universities, shows suppressing corn borer saved corn growers $3.2 billion in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin over the past 14 years. Interestingly, the researchers figured $2.4 billion of that benefit went to farmers who didn't plant Bt corn. For Iowa and Nebraska, the total savings amounted to $3.6 billion, with $1.9 billion accruing for non-Bt users.
While growers who planted the technology did get a benefit, it appears the area-wide suppression of the pest helped all farmers. About 63% of corn contains Bt technology. In figuring the benefit, researchers counted the savings in the tech investment for those growers that didn't buy Bt corn.
Across the states in the survey, researchers have measured a marked decline in corn borer populations. In fact the four- or five-years cycle of the returning pest common in the region until the technology was introduced, hasn't been as prevalent. But it couldn't have happened if growers hadn't made the investment, even if their neighbors didn't use the technology.
In fact, one research participant, Mike Gray, University of Illinois Extension entomologist, notes in a press statement that "sustained economic and environmental benefits of this technology will depend on continued stewardship by producers to maintain non-Bt refuges to minimize the risk of evolution of Bt resistance in crop pest species."
Of course if growers who didn't use the tech got a benefit, that strengthens the argument that an investment in refuge doesn't "cost" as much as you may have first thought. Suppressed populations of the pest mean fewer economic loses on refuge acres.
Right now the seed industry is racing toward lower refuge levels and already we're seeing 5% refuge in the Midwest for some hybrids - in 2011 - with reductions to 20% in the south. Yet for those of you planning on using a more established (veteran? legacy? single-trait) corn borer technology, at least you know now that the refuge acres may be less likely to be hit from the pest than in the past.
Here's information about the study: This study titled, “Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers,” will appear in the October 8 edition of Science. The lead researcher is Bill Hutchison of the University of Minnesota. Collaborating authors include Eric Burkness and Roger Moon of the University of Minnesota, Paul Mitchell of the University of Wisconsin, Tim Leslie of Long Island University, Shelby Fleischer of Pennsylvania State University, Mark Abrahamson of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Krista Hamilton of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Kevin Steffey and Mike Gray of the University of Illinois, Rick Hellmich of USDA-ARS, Von Kaster of Syngenta Seeds Inc., Tom Hunt and Bob Wright of the University of Nebraska, Ken Pecinovsky of Iowa State University, Tom Rabaey of General Mills Inc., Brian Flood of Del Monte Foods and the late Earl Raun of Pest Management Company.