Stand up if you worry about the effects of chemical pesticides on the environment. Stand up if you ate corn sometime in the past month. Stand up if you have ever owned any clothing item made of cotton.Now look at your neighbor.
Pesticides affect everyone.
Today I will share with you the history of one pesticide debate and the benefits and risks of a technology that affects each and every one of us.
It all began in China, over one hundred years ago. People realized that all the silk worms were dying due to bacteria that produced a deadly toxin.
Agriculturalists realized this toxin could be used as a pesticide to combat an agricultural pest with a similar anatomy: the European Corn Borer. Soon, the toxin was mass produced and sprayed on corn and cotton fields like traditional chemical pesticides. In fact, this method is still used on organic farms today.
When the genetic engineering boom hit, incorporating the bacteria’s genes that produce this toxin into corn was a priority.
The borer will stop eating two hours after eating its first bite of genetically engineered corn or cotton and often dies two or three days later. Despite the adoption of this technology, it is estimated that the European Corn Borer costs producers more than 1 billion dollars each year due to yield loss from its leaf, sheath and collar feeding, stalk tunneling and ear damage.
Next we will discuss the production, environmental and health benefits from Bt engineered corn and cotton.
The biggest benefit to the production of is increased yields. Farmers protect their yields from being eaten away and stop the bugs from tunneling inside the corn and causing the stalk to fall where it is less likely to be picked up by a combine.
Yields are protected because this technology is generally more effective because pesticides must make contact with the insect to kill it, which is difficult or impossible if the pest is under the leaf or inside the plant.
Bt technology protects producer’s budgets and the environment from runoff and residues by reducing the application of pesticides and the fossil fuels required for their application. For example, conventional cotton must be sprayed 10-15 times each season, while GM cotton is sprayed just once or twice. GM corn is not sprayed at all.Even producers growing conventional corn often do not have to spray conventional pesticides because GM Bthave suppressed corn borer populations.
Finally, it is healthy for human and animal consumption according to 20 years of human and animal safety data by the FDA. Stephen Moose, an associate professor of Maize functional at the University of Illinois said studies show the Bttoxin degrades almost immediately after entering the mouth or stomach and therefore does not pose any threat. In fact, some argue the Bt technology makes corn safer for humans and animals by helping to eliminate cancerogenicmolds from growing on afflicted plants.
In addition to many benefits that are also risks to production, the environment, and health.
This technology requires farmers to plant refuges, meaning a certain percentage of their crop is conventional corn so that susceptible corn borers breed with resistant corn borers to limit the possibility of a population that is resistant the pesticide. If farmers do not comply, they are not only compromising the technology, but also breaking the law. Each stakeholder I interviewed believed resistance is unavoidable, making this technology an ineffective barrier to enormous yield losses. Producers would have to revert back to using more pesticides to reduce corn borer populations.
Also, these technologies are not free from pesticides. Bt corn utilizes insecticide seed treatments to protect the plant early in the growing season. In addition, Bt cotton requires pesticide applications in conjunction with this technology.
While there are not any known risks to health, many would argue we do not have enough information from long-term, unbiased studies to definitively say so. Many believe it is their right know what they are eating and that all GM products should be labeled.
Despite the risks this is an issue that is here to stay.
The USDA Economic Research Service found that in 2011 approximately 65 percent of corn and 73 percent of cotton is genetically engineered to include the Bt toxin.
Perhaps Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington said it best: “While biotechnology is not a panacea for every nutritional and agricultural problem, it is a powerful tool to increase food production, protect the environment and improve the healthfulness of foods. It should not be rejected cavalierly.” However, neither should the risks. It will take cooperation from both sides to ensure the protection of yields, the environment and our health.