Washington Insider-- Friday

Biotech Crop Problems

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Ethanol Groups Ask Federal Court To Force EPA To Disclose Refiner Exemptions

Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) asked the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to respond to several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by the biofuels industry regarding the small refinery exemption (SRE) program and EPA's escalation in granting SREs in recent years.

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor and RFA president and CEO Geoff Cooper said in a news release, “For the last several years, biofuels interests have pleaded with EPA to lift the veil of secrecy that it has held over the issuance of small refinery exemptions under the Renewable Fuel Standard. These clandestine agency actions have destabilized markets and allowed numerous refineries to avoid their RFS compliance obligations at the expense of renewable fuel producers and supporters, including America's farmers.”

The official noted that, “Fundamentally, this request is about fairness and transparency in government. If an agency decides to relieve a refinery from the obligations Congress imposed under the Clean Air Act or any federal law, it should be done in the public view.”

USDA World Board Leader Offers Defense Of China Corn Import Figure

USDA's forecast that China's 2020/21 corn imports from all sources will be at 7 million metric tons has prompted many questions about the forecast in no small part because U.S. export commitments for corn to China alone stood at 10.5 million metric tons as of October 15.

"Keep in mind that export sales ... do get canceled at times," World Ag Outlook Board (WAOB) Chairman Mark Jekanowski said during a virtual USDA data users meeting.

China's tariff rate quota for corn was maintained at 7.2 mmt for calendar 2021, but expectations are that China's government will issue additional import quotas or take other actions to bring more corn in than the announced TRQ level in 2021.

And the fact there has been no formal announcement factors into the WAOB decision, Jekanowski said. “One of the things we try not to do is forecast changes in policy, including changes in policy by foreign countries,” he noted.

Chinese corn prices have hit lofty levels as demand for corn is high in the country as they seek to rebuild their hog herd that was decimated by African swine fever (ASF) and the country has sought to dramatically reduce the use of swill to feed hogs.


Washington Insider: Biotech Crop Problems

National Public Radio is reporting this week about serious emerging problems with major crops that appear to be losing some of their main features.

Some of the most popular products of biotechnology — corn and cotton plants that have been genetically modified to fend off insects — are no longer offering the same protection from those bugs. Scientists say that the problem results from farmers overusing the crops, and are pushing for new regulations. These crops were the original genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. They weren't the first ones invented, but they were the first to be widely embraced by farmers, starting in the late 1990s.

They got their bug-resistant features from a kind of bacteria that lives in the soil, called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which is poisonous to the larval stage of some major insect pests, including the corn rootworm and cotton bollworm. Scientists inserted some of these bacterial genes into corn and cotton, and the plants themselves produced these insect-killing proteins.

Bt crops brought a two-fold benefit: Cotton and corn farmers didn't need to use so many chemicals to control the bollworm and related pests after they were released, starting in 1996. "Our insecticide sprays just plummeted, and there were guys who wouldn't have to treat at all," says David Kerns, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, speaking of cotton farmers.

This was also good news for the environment. The Bt proteins are toxic to a relatively small number of insects, and they're practically harmless to people and other animals. Unlike the insecticides that they replaced, they were not killing significant numbers of pollinators like bees and butterflies, or beneficial insects that prey on pests and help to keep them under control.

Farmers like Jonathan Evans in North Carolina liked Bt cotton because it made farming easier. "It's always better for the plant to protect itself, than for us to have to go out and spray for the worm," he says. "You can tend a lot more acres, with a lot less equipment." Now there are new strains of bollworms, rootworms, and other pests have emerged that are able to feed on Bt plants without dying. David Kerns says some farmers are pretty angry about it.

"There are words I can't use," he says, "but they want to know what the heck they're doing, paying for a technology but then still have to spray."

Increasingly, they are bothered by the fact that biotech companies have deployed close to a dozen slightly different Bt genes, targeting a variety of insects. In many cases, the bugs have evolved resistance to some Bt proteins, but not others, and the prevalence of Bt-resistant insects varies from place to place. "The impact can be patchy, but when it's there, it's big," says Julie Peterson, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska. "If you're the farmer who ends up with all of their corn laying down on the ground because the roots have been completely fed on by rootworm beetles, that's a huge impact to you."

Scientists have long warned about this risk. They've been engaged in a long-running argument with the companies selling Bt crops, such as Monsanto, which has been acquired by Bayer.

Even before Monsanto started selling the first Bt crops, independent scientists pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the amount of land that farmers could devote to Bt crops.

If Bt crops were planted everywhere, the scientists argued, it would create a situation in which, if a few rare insects happened to be genetically capable of surviving Bt proteins, they would be the sole survivors, quickly mate with each other, and produce a new strain of resistant insects. Biologists call this "selection pressure."

The solution, they said, was a requirement that farmers devote some of their land to non-Bt crops. This would allow plenty of non-resistant insects to survive, and make it less likely that the rare resistant insects would mate with each other.

The EPA adopted this strategy, but independent scientists and biotech companies have disagreed over the years about how big these refuges need to be. In the case of some Bt crops, such as corn hybrids with genes targeting the corn rootworm, scientists have urged the EPA to require that farmers to devote at least half of their fields to non-Bt corn. The companies balked at that, since it would have limited sales of their products. They convinced the EPA that such large refuges weren't necessary.

The warnings, however, turned out to be well-founded. Over the past decade, insects like the corn rootworm, the cotton bollworm, and the Western bean cutworm have become resistant to one Bt gene after the other. Now scientists, once again, are pushing for tighter government rules.

"We are at an important point, where we've seen what can happen, and definitely do need to make some changes," Peterson says. The biggest proposed changes are an attempt to preserve one particular Bt gene, called called Vip3A, which has been incorporated into both corn and cotton plants. Vip3A came on the market a little later, and it is slightly different from other Bt genes, "so it still is effective against a lot of insects, and it's sort of carrying a lot of the weight right now," Peterson says.

The company Syngenta sells it under the trade name Agrisure Viptera.

Scientists are worried that it will soon break under the weight of overuse, especially in cotton-growing areas of the South. There, the Vip3A gene is currently deployed in both corn and cotton to fight off an insect known both as the cotton bollworm and the corn earworm. Kerns says that he and his colleagues have found a recessive genetic trait for Vip3A resistance in this insect population. If the gene is widely used, insects carrying this gene will be more likely to survive, mate, and produce fully resistant offspring.

Two years ago, a group of the EPA's outside scientific advisors recommended unanimously that the agency prohibit the use of Vip3A in corn in the South. This would preserve its effectiveness in cotton, they said, where it's much more valuable.

The company that owns the Vip3A gene — Syngenta — argued that such a prohibition wasn't necessary or fair. In its latest draft document on the issue, the EPA backed away from the idea. Instead, the agency proposed a variety of other measures. They include a requirement that companies plant and monitor "sentinel plots" of Bt crops that could provide early warning of insect resistance, and also that companies force farmers to abide by existing requirements to plant non-Bt refuges. Studies have found many farmers ignoring these rules.

Peterson says that if current farming practices don't change, it's possible that all of the Bt genes currently on the market will stop working reliably within a decade.

So, we will see. Clearly the scientists at USDA and the genetic firms who market these products are well of the problems that are emerging and likely have strategies to help customers deal with them, and have many experts work.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com