A genetically modified crop benefits a non-modified crop by killing pests, University of Minnesota study finds

(press release from University of Minnesota)

Transgenic corn’s resistance to pests has benefitted even non-transgenic corn, a new study led by scientists from the University of Minnesota shows.

The study, published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science, found that widespread planting of genetically modified Bt corn throughout the Upper Midwest has suppressed populations of the European corn borer, historically one of corn’s primary pests. This areawide suppression has dramatically reduced the estimated $1 billion in annual losses caused by the European corn borer, even on non-genetically modified corn. Bt corn, introduced in 1996, is so named because it has been bred to produce a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insect pests.

Corn borer moths cannot distinguish between Bt and non-Bt corn, so females lay eggs in both kinds of fields, said the study’s chief author, University of Minnesota entomology professor William Hutchison. Once eggs hatch in Bt corn, young borer larvae feed and die within 24 to 48 hours. Because it is effective at controlling corn borers and other pests, Bt corn has been adopted on about 63 percent of all U.S. corn acres. As a result, corn borer numbers have also declined in neighboring non-Bt fields by 28 percent to 73 percent in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, depending on historical pest abundance and level of Bt-corn adoption.  The study also documents similar declines of the pest in Iowa and Nebraska. This is the first study to show a direct association between Bt corn use and an areawide reduction in corn borer abundance.

Economic benefits of this areawide pest suppression have totaled $6.9 billion over the past 14 years for the 5-state region. Surprisingly, non-Bt corn acres accounted for $4.3 billion (62 percent of this total benefit.) The primary benefit of Bt corn is reduced yield losses, and Bt acres received this benefit after the growers paid Bt corn technology fees. But as a result of areawide pest suppression, non-Bt acres also experienced yield savings without the cost of Bt technology fees, and thus received more than half of the benefits from growing Bt corn in the region.

Our Take:
The miracle of Bt Corn has boosted yield in both GM and conventional acres. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Over the past 14 years these yield gains have meant $6.9 billion dollars more in the pockets of farmers. Not only has this money flowed directly into main street businesses across rural Minnesota and the whole Corn Belt, but a chunk of this $6.9 billion dollars is the money that has helped to build farmer-owned, farm-based energy production–ethanol and biodiesel in America.

Farmer ownership of ethanol creates a perfect hedge that keeps farmers in business.

It’s no coincidence that Bt corn and farmer-owned ethanol started up about the same time. The yield gain from crop science, together with significant new uses for corn, is what has allowed Corn Belt farmers to stay in business. Period.

And crop science is the reason that the food-vs-fuel argument is a complete fallacy. The abundance of #2 yellow field corn allows us to continue to export huge volumes of it, still have every bushel the American livestock industry can use and accommodate the booming ethanol industry all at the same time.

And the crop science revolution is far from over. In the coming decade, the major seed companies plan to market corn varieties genetically enhanced to feature greater water efficiency and resistance to heat stress.


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