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Think Different: Mind Your Traits

Resistant weeds. Resistant rootworms. Who's at fault? Biotech traits, nature or you?

Genetic visions of grandeur were hailed from the very beginning. I remember visiting numerous biotechnology labs from Boston to St. Louis to San Francisco back in the 1980s to write one of the first futuristic stories (for sister magazine Farm Industry News) that detailed how this genetic technology was predicted to move crops and farming forward. Claims were amazing and unbelievable – visions that crops could reduce or eliminate pesticide use because of altered genetics.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s; such visions became reality. Hundreds of millions of dollars in breakthrough research delivered the first soybean varieties that could tolerate glyphosate. This genetic technology changed an entire industry and made complex weed control simple with a safer lower-dose product. Roundup Ready soybeans became the fastest adopted and most widely used technology in the history of agriculture.

Next came impressive Bt corn hybrids that could safely kill the costly corn borer when it ingested some of the plant. This technology wiped out this insect across tens of millions of corn acres, and was widely and rapidly adopted. And in the South, Bt cotton also drastically reduced pest issues and chemical use.

Such success with biotechnology made farming easier, and was a main driver to expand farm size. Unfortunately, as predicted by some entomologists and agronomists, too much of a good thing led to overuse and improper management of these technologies (by both companies and farmers). Nature began to fight back.

In this issue, we examine another biotech Bt corn designed to kill rootworms, the most economically damaging pest to corn. Just four short years after introduction, university entomologists found rootworms that could survive one Bt-RW trait. Fortunately, we've learned that continuous corn and continuous use of a single Bt-RW trait is the main culprit, and solutions are being implemented. But we're also seeing too much root feeding of other Bt-RW traits when rootworm populations are high.

Did previous successes with biotechnology (prior to Bt-RW hybrids) raise expectations of success and trust among farmers? Absolutely. But did farmers let their guard down and walk too far away from examining the lower-dose rootworm technology after planting? Or choose to not totally abide by recommended refuge rules? Only you can answer that. And did the EPA accept too small of a refuge acreage size or too distant a location – that may have added to the problem? Some entomologists think that is true.

In the end, further research will likely show fault among companies, traits, nature and farmers. And it will take proper action among all stakeholders to try and overcome what Mother Nature will continue to throw at new technologies. Like she always has.

I sincerely thank you for reading and for being willing to Think Different.


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