The $1 billion pest has done it before. It beat crop rotation during the 1990s when a new strain of the western corn rootworm began breeding opposite fields so they’d be ready for corn planting in the following year. “Up until then rotation of corn and soybeans was a pretty good control strategy,” University of Illinois entomologist Michael Gray told Food Safety News.
After that came the controversial genetically modified Bt seeds–from Monsanto and licensed to others—that came with built-in toxins to slay the destructive corn rootworm. And everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that approved them to Monsanto who developed them to Land Grant universities who monitor the performance of American agriculture—all said use of the Bt seeds would reduce pesticide use.
Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops did result in some reduced pesticide use. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources figures Bt crops reduced insecticide use by 10-12 million pounds annually in the period from 1996 to 2011. There is USDA data showing an even more dramatic decline.
But in the last couple years, the billion dollar pest with a new immunity has begun striking back against Monsanto’s Bt seed. And America’s corn farmers—who are planting a near record 97.3 million acres this year—are responding with the only weapon in their arsenal by dramatically upping their pesticide use.
Any reduction now looks to be history. Coming off two extraordinary years when acres dedicated to corn produced $77 and nearly $80 billion, respectively, in 2011 and 2012 with corn prices of $6.22 and $7.40 per bushel, growers are not pulling back and pesticides are now one of their big “inputs” in the corn crop.
Even though $2 corn was a reality as recently as 2005, they see too many competing uses for their product to be gloomy about the future. Beverages, high fructose corn syrup, starch, cereals and sweeteners are among uses of corn in food. Corn-fed beef, poultry, pork and dairy are its principal feed uses. And then on the fuel front ethanol demands are around 500 million bushels of corn.
More pesticide bought to control another break-out of the western corn rootworm is seen by most growers as just a little more insurance, according to both Gray and Benbrook. Gray, who discovered severe rootworm injury in a Cass County, IL cornfield in June 2012, says most growers made decisions about pesticide use this year based on their harvest experiences last fall.
Earlier in 2013, Gray meet with Illinois corn and soybean growers at five locations in the state. He used hand-held “clickers’ to survey growers, finding on average 92 percent planned to plant a Bt hybrid for corn rootworm protection in 2013, but on average 46.66 percent also plan to apply insecticides at planting.
After his meetings with almost 600 Illinois growers, Gray predicted the sharp increase in planting-time soil insecticides with corn rootworm Bt hybrids. Last week, that prediction was verified with the Wall Street Journal reporting surging insecticide sales for companies like American Vanguard Corp. and Syngenta AG.
Corn growers, according to Gray, are “covering their bets” by upping their pesticide use while sticking with a Bt hybrid for corn rootworm. Benbrook agrees growers are “all in in their bet on corn.”
Gray’s work with Illinois corn growers even brought a response from Monsanto last year. The giant agri-business suggested growers using their product should rotate their crops and traits, and buy their dual of mode action products. At this point, Monsanto’s dominance in America’s cornfields is not threatened. That could change if one of its topline products is breaking down.
For 2013, more acres have been planted with genetically modified corn than ever, and its being planted with more pesticides than in more than a decade. USDA’s current forecast for harvest time is for corn selling for around $4.50 a bushel.
That would be enough to cover the “inputs” and clear a profit. Droughts or disease that reduce yields could increase prices. Memories of last fall’s corn futures of $8.50 continue to dance in the heads of growers.
With more than 40 states contributing to the U.S, corn crop, growers continue to have significant political clout. They no longer get direct payment from the USDA if prices go south, but the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program takes up the slack.© Food Safety News