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Genetically altered corn may be at risk

Corn damaged by rootworm in central Illinois (Courtesy University of Illinois)

Months ago, an EPA report warned that corn genetically modified to combat insect infestation was losing its effectiveness. Now, Monsanto and other seed companies say at least part of the blame for the potential crisis falls on farmers.

In December, we reported on the EPA’s findings, which implied that Monsanto’s Bt corn seed might be losing some of its effectiveness against rootworm. The EPA also called Monsanto’s program for monitoring suspected cases of resistance “inadequate.”

This week, though, Monsanto said that a Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee (ABSTC) report stated that much of the problem comes from the fact many farmers are ignoring EPA rules designed to stop insects from developing resistance to genetically modified corn.

Farmers are supposed to plant non-genetically modified corn adjacent to the Bt corn so that insects will feed on both kinds and won’t be able to develop resistance. Monsanto told BusinessWeek that 41 percent of the 3,053 farmers the ABSTC inspected last year failed to meet the EPA requirements.

Back in December, Aaron Gassmann, an assistant professor of entomology at Iowa State University whose research was cited in the EPA report, warned that these poor field management practices could have far-reaching effects.

"It could become a substantial problem down the road if things don't change now," Gassmann said.

The stakes are high, according to Nebraska crop consultant Ben Pinkelman. According to the“Corn and Soybean Digest,” roughly two-thirds of the U.S. corn crop has been genetically modified to ward off pests.

"We've got a trait and these traits are supposed to be infallible is the general belief out there,” Pinkelman said. “It's never happened before. Insecticides have failed before, cultural controls have failed before — this is kind of a first."