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Scientists at the University of Maryland have recently published a study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in which they compiled 40 years’ worth of data in order to assess the implications and results of Bt field corn. It’s a widely commercial, genetically engineered technology, and this first-in-kind research effort was a broad-scale collaborative study. There have been other published works illustrating the benefits of Bt corn or Bt cotton adoption relative to specific things like pest control, but this marks the first study to analyze the effects it has on other crops located offsite in North America.
The researchers tracked European corn borer populations and thereby figured out optimal recommendations for spraying regimens; determined overall crop damage for sweet corn, green beans, peppers and other vegetable crops; and decreased adult moth activity significantly. These are all benefits that haven’t been documented by any previous study, and they exhibit Bt crops’ potential as an extremely beneficial tool for the future with regard to mitigating pest populations by region and creating a cumulative benefit for other crops located in the same agricultural landscape elsewhere.
Genetically modified organism crops are a known concern, and the methods used to produce and cultivate them have also often been a point of controversy. Bt corn is an attempt at mitigating some of that controversy by greatly reducing damage to actual crops and soil as well as creating a more nuanced means of pest control. Bt corn is a GMO that’s been in use in the US since 1996, and it now comprises 90 percent of the current US corn population. In other words, Americans eating corn are likely consuming GMO corn and are, thus, hard-pressed to find non-GMO corn in the first place.
The University of Maryland’s Galen Dively, a professor emeritus and integrated pest management consultant in the entomology department led the study alongside research associate Dilip Venugopal. The data they used was gathered from 1976 to 2016, tracking all the trends of the two decades prior to Bt corn adoption and the two decades thereafter. “Safety of Bt corn and other GMOs has been tested and proven extensively, but this study is about the effectiveness of Bt corn as a pest management strategy, particularly for off-site crops or different crops in different areas than the Bt corn itself,” Venugopal says.
“This is the first paper published in North America,” according to Dively, “showing off-site benefits to other host plants for a pest like the corn borer, which is a significant pest for many other crops like green beans and peppers. We are seeing really more than 90 percent suppression of the corn borer population in our area for any crop, which is incredible.” Based on pest trap numbers, they estimated the population and made recommendations for how to spray and how often to do so to combat pests like corn borers. They also observed, in the process, major population mitigation with considerably fewer sprays over time.
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“There would be no recommendation to spray for the corn borer given the current population, and this paper can trace that back to Bt corn adoption,” Dively added. “What’s more, by looking at the actual pest infestations and damage on actual crops over 40 years of data, we took it a step farther to see the benefits on all sorts of crops and the declines in the actual pest population. We are able to see the results in theory and in practice on actual crops and in the real pest population over a long stretch of time.” From here, there’s more work to do, including figuring out just how much money and time this conserves by spraying this much less.
Much of the savings also comes from less effort being dedicated to pest management, and it’s also derived from massive reduction in crop damage. The prospective environmental benefits to the team’s recommendations are nonpareil for that matter, marking what’s likely one of the few points of agreement between avid anti-GMO advocates and GMO proponents. The bigger deal here, though, is to view Bt crops as only one of many pest management solutions, which is Venugopal’s reminder. “The benefits are undeniable but must be weighed against many other options to use a broad range of tools and maximize benefit while minimizing any potential risks.”
In general, that’s the name of the game. Dively ultimately found that analyzing these kinds of solutions, in general, is critical to how we make progress in agribusiness and environmental protection at the same time. This is hardly the end of the road for these types of innovation, and as such, there is the prospect of overly suppressing pest populations, which is not ideal. These pests, after all, serve vital ecological functions just as virtually every living organism does, but 40 years of data more than adequately depict for us what levels of pest management are suitable over what qualifies as an extended period of time — nearly half a century. With that, we can draw some reasonable conclusions about future innovations when the time comes in much the same way that Dively and Venugopal have done with Bt corn.