on Bt Forage Corn Registrations:
Growers, Registrants Fail to Show Need for Technology"
The motto, Where Maine goes, so goes the nation, is certain to have created anxiety among proponents of transgenic plant-pesticide technology on December 12. That's when regulators for the Pine Tree state became the only authority in the U.S. and Canada to deny registration (permission for sale and use) of forage corn seed products with an insecticide incorporated within their genetic structure.
Citing a lack of evidence to show need for the products, the BPC's 4-3 vote prohibits the planting of DEKALBt, NK Brand Bt Corn with KnockOut and NK Brand Bt Corn with YieldGard. The three products have been modified to contain genes responsible for the production of Bacillus thuringenis subspecies kurstaki (B.t.k.), a naturally occurring insecticide found in soil bacteria which selectively controls the European corn borer.
Although B.t. insecticides have been applied by conventional spraying for more than three decades, this form of the chemical is unique: the insecticidal traits are engineered into the genetic structure of the entire corn plant. Upon eating any portion of the plant containing B.t.k., the European corn borer ceases feeding and dies.
The registrant for DEKALBt is DEKALB Genetics Corporation while the later two products come from Novartis Seeds, Inc.
Maine Lacks Need: The BPC's decision came after three hours of commentary from registrants, ag product dealers, growers, and B.t. corn opponents over the course of two business meetings. The second meeting convened to better address BPC questions whether European corn borer posed a pest problem significant enough to show an established need for the products in Maine.
Growers traditionally do not try to control the European corn borer in forage corn because effective spray timing is difficult to achieve and the cost of spraying insecticides exceeds the value of return from a pest-free crop. DEKALB and Novartis representatives said their products would enable growers to protect their forage crops more effectively and economically than by spraying. "Many growers either are not aware the corn borers are a widespread problem or they choose not to control it," said David Miller of DEKALB. "Maine growers will be surprised by the 5 to 7 per cent yield advantage after using B.t. corn."
According to DEKALB's Miller, studies from New York showed yield increases from 20.1 tons per acre for conventional forage corn to 22.2 tons per acre with B.t. corn. He added that while Maine growing conditions are unique, European corn borer remains a leading pest problem in Maine sweet corn, and that the Board could assume the same problem exists in silage corn.
A majority of the Board was not in an assuming mood, however. Although several growers and dealers presented personal accounts of European corn borer damage occurring in Maine--including a Skowhegan dairyman who claimed a 20 to 25 per cent loss to the pest--the Board heard of no actual European corn borer research conducted in Maine. Board member Alan Lewis said none of the comments presented satisfied his desire for concrete evidence of need: "This board needs more than anecdotal evidence....The words I keep hearing are guess and assume. In my training as a scientist, the first thing we try to get away from is guessing and assuming."
Lauchlin Titus, representing Agway, an ag supply dealer, countered with his credentials as a certified crop advisor: "That makes me a scientist, and I can tell you I have seen corn borer damage." Other proponents reported that New Hampshire--which permits use of B.t. corn--has seen a 10 per cent increase of silage yield after use of the genetically modified corn, and that the Maine dairy industry is already at a competitive disadvantage because of its shorter growing seasons and remote distance from Midwest state grain sources. Adding that improvements in corn yields could make a difference to Maine's ailing dairy industry, Bob Spear, a grower and state representative from Nobleboro, said, "This is a tool we could use to save our farms."
Resistance Leads Concerns: Calling B.t. the most important insect control for organic agriculture which is the fastest growing sector of agriculture in Maine, Sharon Tisher of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said the registrations of B.t corn would only encourage insect resistance (immunity to B.t.), thereby jeopardizing the usefulness of the insecticide while meeting no criteria of need. Among the criteria she cited were the need for controlling a new pest, for controlling an old pest by way of a safer product, or for controlling an old pest when pest resistance calls for a new product or registration. Tisher added that the acceptance of these registrations when none is needed would defy Maine's new policy that calls for minimized reliance upon pesticides, P.L. 1997, Chapter 389.
Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required no pest resistance management plans prior to taking these products to market (one is required, however, by 1999), Nancy Allen of Maine Green Party asked "that we not be part of an experiment."
The specter of other unknowns which drew fire from B.t. corn opponents included runaway pest resistance which could destabilize the ecosystem at large, Novartis's intentions of using a gene marker (a gene which facilitates B.t. production in corn) that coincidentally confers tolerance to an herbicide, and genetic engineering's potential for creating new and unimaginable toxins.
Maine's BPC is not the only agency which has shown reluctance towards ag biotechnology. The European Community has sandbagged acceptance for genetically modified food products by calling for special labeling of genetically modified food products--a condition so far unacceptable to U.S. trade representatives.
But the BPC ruling is a precedent clearly out of step with federal and state authorities which have given genetically modified plant pesticides fast-track status. B.t. forage corn is registered in all U.S. states except California and Alaska where seed producers have not sought registration.
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Last Updated on 5/21/99
By Karen Lutz