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Speakout: New biotech corn a boon to farmers

(Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kevin Penny, Rocky Mountain News: When people first began talking about agricultural biotechnology, we heard about its potential to reduce the use of pesticides. The promise is about to arrive in a big way with the anticipated approval of corn that resists the devastating corn rootworm.

Control of this pest represents the single largest use of conventional insecticides in U.S. agriculture. It appears that farmers could essentially eliminate use of that insecticide by planting the new biotech corn, which produces a protein that controls the pest.

I was one of several corn growers who got to try the new corn in 2002 as part of an experimental use permit. How did it work? Consider this: I harvested 25 pivot fields of corn. Twenty-four of the fields received at least one and sometimes three applications of chemical insecticides; the biotech field received none and produced yields that were equal to or better than the other fields.

Rootworms are a devastating pest, which must be controlled if growers are to have any crop. They really aren't worms, but are the larval form of a beetle. They attack the corn roots, depriving the plant of nutrients and causing stalks to fall over. Rootworms cost U.S. corn growers about $1 billion each year.

Currently, in regions like Colorado where rootworms are a problem, most continuous corn acres are treated with a soil-applied granular insecticide.

Sometimes that insecticide loses its punch before all the larvae pupate to their adult form, so farmers might have to apply a liquid insecticide to control the larvae that are continuing to feed on the roots. Then, in the late summer, depending on how many mature beetles we see, we might have to use a third application to suppress the adult beetles, lessening the next spring's infestation. The latter two applications are generally made aerially.

I fully expect the new biotech corn to eliminate nearly all of those applications. The major exception would be those acres in which we would not plant the biotech corn to comply with the refuge management system. The biotech corn contains a gene from a soil bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.

Farmers, including organic farmers, have used Bt powders or sprays for years to control insects that attack leaves or stems. Now scientists have learned how to put the gene into plants where it produces a protein in the roots. It provides season-long protection, no matter when rootworms show up. And, because it is so effective, we probably won't have to control for beetles in the fall.

The Bt protein in the new corn is effective only against rootworms. The Environmental Protection Agency requires extensive testing to prove that the protein does not harm birds, mammals, fish and beneficial insects.

Insect protection through biotechnology is going to be a tremendous benefit.

It's good news for farmers, who must invest heavily in chemicals in order to protect their crops. It's good news for our employees, because it will greatly reduce their exposure to chemicals.

It should also come as good news to the nonfarming public, because it gives farmers a new tool to farm more sustainably.

Having seen how the new corn performed on one of my pivot fields in 2002, I'm hoping it receives final registration approval so I can plant it as broadly as I can in 2003.

Kevin Penny is a third-generation farmer from Burlington.