NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Regulation May Affect Biotech Economics

February 28, 2003

The western corn rootworm is the No. 1 scourge of U.S. corn. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to grant approval for a new variety of transgenic corn that is deadly to pest, but its economic viability may depend on how much acreage farmers can plant with the new corn.

Scientists added a gene that allows corn plants to produce a protein that kills 50 percent to 80 percent of the rootworm larvae. The rootworm costs farmers as much as $200 million in increased insecticide use each year. Ironically, the widespread use of pesticides made this pest a major agricultural threat.

  • David Andow, a member of EPA's scientific advisory panel, says the chemicals made the rootworm a "much better pest" and that a new, insecticide-resistant strain quickly spread across the country.
  • Farmers have long used crop rotation to thwart the pest, planting soybeans after corn so the larvae have nothing to eat.
  • But in the past 10 years, the rootworm has begun adapting by laying eggs that sit out a year until corn is again planted.

The remaining question for the EPA is refuges -- croplands that farmers must plant in non-bioengineered corn to ensure the rootworms don't become resistant. The majority of the EPA's scientific advisory panel wanted to require that 50 percent of farmers' lands be planted in non-biotech corn, while the minority wanted 20 percent.

Monsanto says that if the EPA requires 50 percent, the new product won't be economically viable for farmers to use. "You'd lose a lot of the sheer pesticide-reduction benefit," spokesman Bryan Hurley says.

Source: Elizabeth Weise, "Approval expected for biotech corn that kills No. 1 pest," USA Today, February 25, 2003.

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