Marc Schober is the editor of Farmland Forecast an educational blog devoted to investments in agriculture and farmland.
Corn refuge acres decrease from 20 to 5 percent
Dec 10, 2009
The agriculture world has drastically changed over the past 15 years through genetically modified seeds, and now corn is going to change again in 2010. Since 1996, corn seeds containing the bacteria protein, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have become farmer's staple corn seed because it has a natural insecticide built into its DNA that protects the plant against many insects, including the European Corn Borer.
Monsanto's new seed called SmartStax, has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a reduction in refuge acres from 20% down to 5%. The SmartStax technology was developed by Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto through a cross licensing agreement and research and development collaboration signed in 2007. "The technologies at work in SmartStax will provide increased value on the farm through more thorough control of insects and weeds and from the significant upside potential through refuge reduction. All totaled, we estimate the SmartStax hybrid system could provide an estimated yield benefit of an additional 4% to 10% on the farm," Carl Casale, executive vice president, strategy and operations, Monsanto Company.
The Bt trait is present in each cell of a Bt corn plant. The Bt in each cell emits a toxin that kills many insects. By having the Bt trait built into a plant's DNA, farmers do not have to worry about spraying or handling Bt.
Ever since in-plant protection technology has been used in fields, the EPA requires farmers who plant Bt corn to sign a statement that promises farmers to plant 20% of their fields as refuge acres. Refuge acres are acres of corn that cannot contain in-plant protection technology, such as Bt. The government runs checks on farms, and will hand out large fines if farmers do not follow the Bt planting guidelines.
The reasoning behind refugee acres is quite simple. Bt kills roughly 99% of European Corn Borers, but a small percentage of borers will survive. The survivors will reproduce larva that will contain a greater number of borers that are immune to Bt. Refuge acres promote the reproduction of standard insects, in hopes that the insects will never become completely resilient to Bt.
Refuge acres are typically planted in the outside rows of a field, or in a corner of a field. That way, farmers can keep track of them easier, and treat those acres with spray insecticides if necessary.
Future of Bt corn
Monsanto has recently announced that their new SmartStax Bt corn seed will be ready for market in 2010. More importantly, the EPA has reduced the amount of refuge acres necessary with SmartStax. Currently, all Bt corn must be accompanied by 20% refuge acres in the corn belt or 50% refuge acres in the cotton belt, now those refuge acres have been decreased to 5% and 20% respectively.
The EPA has said that Bt proteins are not toxic to people, domestic animals, fish, or wildlife; and they have no negative impacts on the environment. The proteins break down rapidly inside humans, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The reduction in refuge acres for Monsanto's new SmartStax could make an immediate impact for corn farmers. The price tag will certainly be high for the 2010 release, but a 4% to 10% increase in yield should cover any cost increase. Monsanto reported that they plan on having enough SmartStax seeds for 4 million acres, so farmers should be able to run their own trials on this new seed during the 2010 season.
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