Too Many Farmers Growing Genetically Engineered Corn Not Complying with Key Environmental Requirements

CSPI Urges EPA Not to Re-Register Products Unless Compliance Improves


WASHINGTON—One out of every four farmers who plants genetically engineered (GE) corn is failing to comply with at least one important insect-resistance management requirement. That increases the likelihood that pesticide-resistant bugs will threaten the future of biotech crops and some of their non-biotech neighbors. That finding comes in a report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to not renew registrations of the GE corn varieties unless compliance rates improve.

In 2008, 57 percent of the corn acreage in the United States was planted with corn spliced with genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, or Bt. Those crops produce natural toxins that are harmless to humans but will kill corn rootworms and corn borers, which otherwise reduce crop yields. Farmers who plant such crops are supposed to plant a refuge of conventional corn in, adjacent to, or near the GE crop. That refuge is designed to reduce the risk that pests that survive the toxin will breed with each other and produce resistant offspring. Resistant offspring would not only reduce yields of the Bt crops, but could also threaten organic or conventional farmers who use natural Bt-based pesticides on non-GE crops.

Depending on the location of the crop and the pests targeted by the strain of corn, farmers have varying requirements specifying the size of the refuge and its distance from the GE crop. According to industry surveys submitted to EPA in 2008:

  • Only 78 percent of growers planting corn-borer-protected crops met the size requirement, and only 88 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 74 percent of growers planting rootworm-protected crops met the size requirement, and 63 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 72 percent of farmers growing stacked varieties of GE corn—corn protected against both corn borer and rootworm—met the size requirement and 66 percent met the distance requirement.

Those compliance rates are down, in some cases sharply, from 2003 to 2005, when compliance rates were often above 90 percent. Though compliance assessments made on the farm tend to show higher compliance rates than the surveys, those rates also decreased in the last three years, according to CSPI.

"Given the tremendous growth in the acreage given over to genetically engineered corn since its introduction, it is intolerable for farmers not to be meeting their refuge requirements," said CSPI biotechnology director Greg Jaffe. "Given the stakes, regulators should insist on compliance rates much closer to 100 percent to prevent insect problems that threaten all farmers, not just those planting biotech crops."

In a letter sent today to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, CSPI said that the agency should not re-register the existing varieties of Bt corn until the companies demonstrate higher levels of compliance. But, if the EPA does re-register the products, registrants such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences should be subject to severe fines or seed sales restrictions if noncompliance rates remain high, according to the letter. Those biotech companies should also provide farmers with incentives to meet their obligations. CSPI also wants the EPA to obtain more reliable data by requiring biotech companies to pay for independent, third-party assessments of farmer compliance with refuge requirements, and to require labeling on bags of biotech seed corn to specify refuge requirements.

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