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Corn+Soybean Digest

Bt Acreage Climbs But Trouble Brews

Surprisingly, the Bt corn acreage explosion didn't fizzle in '99. That's despite low corn borer numbers in '98 - and rock-bottom crop prices.

But the fire storm over genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe leaked to the U.S., and confusion and uncertainty now reign here.

Industry estimates show 24-28 million acres of Bt corn were planted in the U.S. last spring - roughly a 75% jump over the '98 acreage. Does Bt corn still look as good as in the beginning? Scientists respond with a resounding "yes." However, protests against genetically engineered crop technology in Europe turned nasty in September. For example, French farmers dumped manure in front of McDonald's restaurants to protest that technology.

The spark that ignited the rumble in the U.S. occurred last spring, when a preliminary lab study at Cornell University showed Monarch butterfly larvae could die from eating milkweed with Bt corn pollen on it.

That news exploded across the national media like a windswept prairie fire - even though virtually all university and industry scientists say it proved nothing as far as Bt being a threat in actual field situations.

Eric Sachs, business director for Monsanto's YieldGard Bt corn, sums up the sentiment of most scientists: "The exposure of monarchs to Bt pollen is very limited in field situations. That's not to say there won't be any that get exposed, but the number is insignificant.

"Cars occasionally hit squirrels running across roads," Sachs adds. "So, should we stop driving cars?"

John Foster, University of Nebraska entomologist, adds: "What's really at risk is the monarch habitat because of mowing along roadsides by maintenance crews, which takes out the milkweed the larvae feed on. That's a bigger factor, in my mind, than potential damage from Bt corn."

Most university scientists are decrying the emotional hysteria concerning the safety of GM grains and food products.

"The perceived threat is like something out of a horror movie, without any credible science behind it," says Foster.

Ken Ostlie, University of Minnesota entomologist, says: "There seems to be a lot of people grabbing at whatever they can to slow down the introduction of GM or genetically enhanced crops."

If there really were a significant threat to monarchs from Bt corn pollen in farm fields, Ostlie says it could be virtually eliminated by planting non-Bt corn buffers along roadsides, where most milkweed and monarch larvae are found. In September, citing some customers' requests for identified genetic origin of grain, several U.S. grain companies released announcements urging farmers to segregate Bt corn from non-Bt corn.

Farmers are caught in a catch-22, says Steffey.

"On one hand, farmers have university and industry scientists telling them to implement insect resistance management strategies by growing non-Bt refuges," Steffey says. "To make that work, the refuges have to be very close to Bt corn. Because of pollen drift, you can't do that and segregate corn at the same time. It's not possible."

So, what is a likely outcome to the opposition against Bt corn and other GM crops? Many observers agree that a strong educational effort will let science win out in the long term.

"I don't see the technology going backward," declares Keith Newhouse, spokesman for AgrEvo USA. "I see perhaps a lag of a year or two, where we get everything in place so people understand the true situation to meet both domestic and international needs. I see it as a short-term educational process across the entire globe."

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