Minnesota Farmer


Why GMO’s, part 2

Yesterday in my part 1, Why GMO’s I wrote about why farmers had wanted a herbicide like glyphosate in their crop protection tool box.  Today I would like to shift over to insecticides, especially the Bt gene found in corn and cotton.

For many the Bt gene burst upon the scene in 1996 with the introduction corn (maize) containing the Bt toxin which killed the European corn borer and related species; subsequent Bt genes were introduced that killed corn rootworm larvae.  This was not the first use of the Bt toxin however.

UnknownThe Bt toxin was first found in a soil bacterium in 1901 and has been used since the 1920’s to control insect pests and are often applied as liquid sprays. They are now used as specific insecticides under trade names such as DiPel and Thuricide. Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humanswildlife,pollinators, and most other beneficial insects and are used in Organic farming.

The first use of the Bt gene was in tobacco in 1985 and in the potato plant in 1995.  Both of these crops were approved for use by the USDA, but have never reached production due to lack of interest.

There is nothing more frustrating for farmers than trying to control insects.  First, the insecticides we must use are all highly toxic which means extra precautions and equipment that most simply do not want to mess with.  Second, insecticides have very specific times they must be applied to be worth the expense.  With the Bt gene in a plant there is no worry about toxicity to the user or hitting that frustratingly small application window.  The plant produces the toxin, and when an insect eats the plant it dies.

Genetic engineering has allowed a very specific approach to insect control.  It has produced crops that express the Bt toxin only in parts of the crop targeted by insects.  If your concern is root pruning insects, the toxin is produced in the roots, if it is a stalk munching insect, the toxin is found only in the green part of the plant.  This provides for the most safe use of the Bt toxin.  Extensive testing has shown no harm to insects that are not munching on the crops.  Insecticides that are sprayed on the surface of a plant cannot be that specific.

So far, insect resistance has been managed by having a small part of the crop population not contain the Bt toxin.  Still, the overall control of target insects has been very good.  Organic producers, now have lower populations of harmful insects due to the overall reduction of the pest population.

Use of the Bt gene has allowed farmers large and small to produce more with less.  Reduction of crop damage means more crop harvested and thus more money to help keep the family on the farm.  GM technology has made farming simpler and more profitable.

Michael

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