Believe it or not, there are rules about how a farmer can plant his corn. These rules apply if you want to plant the latest corn hybrids that have patented biotech traits. The seed corn I intend to plant this year has a Bt trait for European corn borer control as well as a herbicide tolerance trait that allows me to spray Roundup over my crop without hurting it.
The agreement I sign when I buy the seed corn says that I will plant 20% of my acres to “refuge corn” in one of a few specific layouts. Refuge corn is seed corn that does not contain any Bt traits for insect control. It’s a safe place for insects to feed and reproduce. The concept is that if you don’t leave a few places where insects can breed, then the only bugs out there will be the ones that survived in Bt corn fields hence they will be resistant to the Bt traits.
I can plant the refuge corn in a field adjacent to my Bt corn field or I can use the refuge corn as part of my field. The way we do it is to plant the refuge corn on the end rows of the field. Here’s why. I can use insecticide in my refuge corn acres. It doesn’t make sense to me that I need to have a refuge area for the bugs, but I can kill all of them with insecticide and that’s okay. I feel a little like Ole in the Ole and Lena jokes because I can’t really follow the logic. By planting the refuge corn in an easy to identify area (like the end rows around the outside edge of the field) we can treat the field with inseciticide if we see bugs like European corn borers beginning to show up.
The reason I brought this up now is because there has been a major change in the industry today. The EPA is going to allow certain seed companies with specific biotech traits to put the refuge corn in the same bag as the biotech traited corn. I’ll explain.
Monsanto and Dow put their respective Bt traits together in a combination biotech trait package called SmartStax a couple years ago. By combining multiple Bt traits together in the same seed corn hybrid, the odds of an insect developing resistance to the trait is greatly reduced. One university entomologist I know said “the chance of a bug becoming resistant to one Bt trait is one in a million, and there are millions of bugs in many fields so it’s going to happen eventually. The chance of a bug becoming resistant to several Bt traits stacked in the same hybrid is more like one in a million millions.”
The other hope of the big seed companies like Monsanto and Dow is that they could mix the refuge corn right in the bag with the Bt corn so farmers would not have to worry about planting a separate refuge area. Today Monsanto and Dow both sent out press releases that the EPA approved their request for the “Refuge in a bag” concept. Both Monsanto and Dow will be marketing seed corn with 95% Bt traited corn and 5% refuge corn in each bag.
Farmer acceptance of the refuge in a bag idea will be very high. Much like the threat of the IRS auditing your tax filings, the thought of the EPA checking to see if you planted the proper amount of refuge acres in the right places is scary to many farmers. For seed dealers, it will also be a nice change. Currently a seed dealer likely carries the same seed corn variety with no traits, with one Bt trait, and with multiple Bt traits. The same variety is now in 3 piles in the warehouse. Now multiply that one hybrid three different ways by 30 hybrids that get used in an area and you can see the problem. With refuge in a bag, the seed dealer could simply stock the stacked trait product and have the refuge corn right in the same bag. It’s much easier.
I like to take the contrarian approach. Refuge in a bag is going to be good for the industry, but for me it’s not a big step forward. In fact, I kind of like the old way. I don’t really like the refuge concept to begin with, but if we’re going to have it I think I can manage it better than most. Most farmers are not treating their refuge acres with insecticide and are giving up yield to insects every year. Just ask farmers if they think they’ll get less yield, the same yield, or more yield when they compare their refuge acres versus their Bt traited acres with insect protection right in the bag. You’ll learn than most farmers think they’re taking a 10 or 15 bushel yield hit when they plant the refuge. On our farm, I’d say that the refuge corn treated with insecticide will yield on par with the rest of the field. That gives us a competitive advantage. Like most good things, though, it does take some extra work.
I love these types of discussions. What do you think about refuge in a bag?