Monsanto Co. and other seed makers reported a threefold increase last year in U.S. farmers caught violating requirements for planting genetically modified corn.
The data relates to farmers planting seeds that are genetically modified to produce a toxin derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a natural insecticide. The Environmental Protection Agency requires the growers to plant an adjacent area -- a so-called refuge -- of non-Bt corn so that bugs don’t become immune.
About 41 percent of 3,053 farmers inspected in 2011 failed to fully comply with the refuge requirement, according to data from the Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee, which Monsanto provided today in an e-mail.
Seed companies are trying to get farmers to plant refuges amid concern that an increasing number of bugs may be developing resistance to modified crops. In July, Iowa State University found some rootworms have evolved resistance to Cry3Bb1, a Bt gene engineered into Monsanto corn. Entomologists in Illinois and other Midwestern states are studying possible resistance in fields where rootworms devour Monsanto’s Bt corn.
An increase in the proportion of farmers found not planting refuges was expected because of a new industry initiative that uses sales data, the National Corn Growers Association said today in a statement on its website. Seed companies used their data to identify farmers who may not have purchased enough seed for a refuge, said Nick Storer, global science policy leader for Dow Chemical Co. and the company’s representative on the ABSTC.
“What’s new is that every grower had some sort of scrutiny this year,” Storer said in a telephone interview. “The whole purpose of doing that was to try to increase the frequency with which we identify non-compliant growers.”
The ABSTC, whose members include St. Louis-based Monsanto, Dow, DuPont Co. and Syngenta AG, files compliance reports with the EPA each January. The industry found about 15 percent of growers weren’t complying in 2010.
Farmers who violate the requirements are now revisited at least twice over five years, Joanne Carden, who is stewardship strategy lead at Monsanto and represents the company on the ABSTC, said in an interview. Farmers who fail a follow-up inspection lose access to the technology, she said.
Improved enforcement was required by the EPA when it extended product registrations for Bt corn products, Storer said. Increased efforts to educate farmers also are part of the new approach, he said.
The industry’s targeted approach is a better use of limited resources than random checks, said Bruce Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Even more important is educating farmers to understand that planting a refuge will extend the life of Bt products, he said.
“The more we can extend each technology the more secure the whole system becomes,” Tabashnik said in a telephone interview. “If resistance happens too quickly, then the insects are going to outpace the next technology.”
Monsanto’s most advanced resistance problem is with crops engineered to tolerate its Roundup herbicide. Weeds that are no longer killed by Roundup have invaded 14 million acres of U.S. cotton, soybean and corn, according to Syngenta AG, a Swiss chemical maker. A Dow study last year found as many as 20 million acres of corn and soybeans may be infested.