Calm before the corn
Corn has been good to farmers. Helping fuel a boom in the ag sector. And as this year’s record corn forecast indicates, Midwestern farmers can’t seem to plant enough of the grain. Even with concerns growing about the effectiveness of today’s high-tech genetically engineered seeds, farmers aren’t backing down.
The land is dry and the wind blows hard in Sac County, Iowa. For Darwin Bettin it’s a good day to be inside selling insurance. He also farms 500 acres of corn and soybeans in western Iowa.
“It seems like just about the day I took this job selling insurance the farm turned around and got good also. That’s just the way it’s been,” Bettin said.
Bettin was born and raised here in Sac County and while this year’s crop is planted, he feels some anxiety because of what happened last year to some of his acres.
“The neighbor’s corn was standing up and mine was leaning over and I just jokingly told my wife if we hadn’t had this new fancy corn I’d say that looks like rootworm damage,” Bettin said.
After a closer look, it was rootworm damage. The “fancy” corn, as Bettin puts it, is BT corn: a seed which is engineered to express a trait that is supposed to kill the rootworm when it eats at the plants’ roots. Bettin gets his seed from his local dealer and says while they refunded him the fees for inserting the trait into the seed they don’t pay off the money he loses from the rootworm damage.
“80 acres equals 100,000 bucks… they refund their 13,000 dollars tech fees and walk away from the other 96,000 bucks," Bettin said.
Still, Bettin is planting BT corn on corn again this year on some of his acres. While he and other farmers are concerned about their yields and profits, researchers who study corn rootworm are honed in on the long term effects. That’s because the rootworm resistance has been showing up in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. In March, 22 scientists wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency with a sense of urgency. They call for big changes in the way biotech companies and seed dealers battle the bug.
“There was concerns about what this resistance might mean for other commercialized BT products,” said Aaron Gassmann an assistant professor of entomology at Iowa State. He was one of the scientists who signed the letter.
Gassmann and students at Iowa State are running tests on a variety of seeds from different companies. But ag giant Monsanto’s seed is the one that’s shown the resistance. Partly, Gassmann saids, because it’s been on the market the longest. In 2003, it was the firstBT seed on the market. Since then these seeds have become such an intricate part of corn farming that it’s hard to find seeds that don’t have some kind of BT technology.
“In many the ways I think the data provide an early warning that people need to be more careful about how these products are used and they need to be used in more integrated way. In other words with a variety of tactics. Farmers shouldn’t just be relying on this same tactic year after year to control the pest,” Gassmann said.
The scientists call for farmers to have options from from tech companies. Basically, don’t insert the trait in ALL of the products. But Luke Samuel, a Corn Insect Traits Product Development Manager at Monsanto, says farmers do have choices.
"We really feel like we have a great selection of products for growers. Each year growers go out and make decisions about what they want to plant. What crop they want to plant. As we look at our product lineup, we feel really good about growers having the choice to really fit the best product on their acres," Samuel said.
Samuel and Gassmann at Iowa State both agree that rotating corn to soybeans is probably the best solution to a rootworm infestation. Rootworms can’t survive on soybeans; but planting less corn? That can be a tough sell.
Five miles from Darwin Bettin’s farm in Sac County, Russ Pickhinke doesn’t have a rootworm problem on any of his acres. But Pickhinke is considering adding granule insecticide, an older method of insect control, to his corn fields next year in addition to using the BT corn: just for a sense of insurance.
"You make more money on corn. The last three years. It’s kind of a no-brainer to do corn on corn. The market seems to want more corn. China’s growing and they can’t seem to produce enough corn to keep their supply happy,” Pickhinke said
So no matter the warnings from the scientists, farmers are thinking as much about the market as the bug.