Biting the “Billion-Dollar Bug” Back


The timing was impeccable – The very week we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, we also learned of a major advance in agricultural biotechnology. On February 25, the Environmental Protection Agency granted commercial approval to a new kind of genetically modified crop that will fight rootworm, the corn farmer’s most destructive pest.

Rootworm is sometimes called the “billion-dollar bug,” because that’s how much damage it does to American farmers each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s $800 million from lost yield, and another $200 million from pesticide expenses.

Some corn farmers concerned about this pest–which is to say, just about all of us–now will have the option of purchasing this seed this year. Because of the limited seed available with this new trait, this technology will only have a limited impact for the 2003 growing season, however some experts believe this genetically modified crop may eventually be used on as many as 15 million of America’s 80 million corn acres.

There are several varieties of corn rootworm, but all share in common the nasty habit of chewing on the roots of corn plants. They do this as larvae, and their feeding makes it difficult or impossible for the crops to absorb the water and nutrients they need to grow. Plants with stubby roots also don’t stand up well; high winds knock them down with ease.

In years past, farmers have sprayed their fields to combat these harmful creatures. Yet new generations of rootworm have developed resistances to insecticides, finding new ways to elude these tools.

Another traditional strategy also has its problems. Because rootworm eggs overwinter in the soil and hatch in the spring, farmers have rotated their crops so that the bugs have nothing to eat. Adult rootworm beetles in some regions have wised up to this practice, however. They’re laying eggs in soybean fields, apparently sensing they’ll be corn fields when their eggs hatch. In other places, the eggs apparently stay in the ground for two winters before they hatch.

These bugs don’t have big brains – they’re simply adapting to their environments they way any dumb creature would do. Yet sometimes it sure seems like they’re outsmarting us.

Biotechnology now will address this problem. The rootworm repellant seed is a variety of Bt corn. That means it pulls a natural toxin from a common soil microbe, Bacillus thuringiensis, and inserts it into the corn plant. The toxin is completely harmless to humans, but it offers a new solution – a new tool – to combat this devastating yield-robbing pest.

Corn farmers already have plenty of experience with another kind of Bt corn, which targets the European corn borer–another terrible pest. In fact, about one-third of all the corn grown in the United States is now genetically modified. These farmers understand the benefits that new biotech solutions can provide.

That rate is bound to rise as word spreads about the rootworm resistant seed. Farmers who choose to plant it will have to abide by a careful planting regimen that ensures the larvae don’t become immune to the Bt toxin. With producers practicing good stewardship, we will have an amazingly effective new weapon to use against the billion-dollar bug.

Consumers certainly will appreciate the news that biotechnology allows these rootworm resistant seeds – and other products still in the pipeline – to make better use of our resources while protecting the environment.

“Corn rootworm is the pest that requires the single largest use of conventional pesticides in the United States,” said Stephen L. Johnson, a top EPA official, in the New York Times. “From an environmental and human health perspective, this product replaces some very significant problematic, or potentially problematic, chemicals.”

Food-safety advocates are delighted at the news. “This is a blockbuster,” said Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in the Washington Post. “It’s the first product to come down the line in a while that really could cut insecticide use and help the environment.”

Psst. I’ve got a hot market tip: It’s time to short sell the billion-dollar bug.

Leave a Reply