Refuge rules must be obeyed

Tragic events or situations result in great loss and misfortune. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” by British writer William Forster Lloyd, 1832, and cited later by Garrett Hardin, in Science magazine in 1968, illustrates this well. Lloyd asked, “Why are cattle on a common [publicly owned pasture] so puny and stunted? Why is the common so bare-worn and cropped so differently from the adjoining [privately owned] enclosures?”

Lloyd concluded that individual herdsmen guided by self-interest and personal gain, added more animals to their herds. Other herdsmen did the same, ultimately, ruining the common property. Hardin summarized this by writing, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

A potential tragedy looms for U.S. corn producers: the loss or reduced efficiency of an important technology, Bt. According to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data, 71% of Iowa’s corn acres contain at least one Bt trait compared to 63% nationwide. Hybrids with stacked traits occupied 57% of Iowa’s corn acreage compared to 46% nationwide. This means hybrids on 9.7 million of Iowa’s 13.7 million acres carried at least one Bt trait (see chart).

While Bt traits protect yield, they impose intense pressure on the target pest populations to develop resistance. Many scientists agree that by planting refuges you delay or prevent pests from developing Bt resistance.

Grave assessment of compliance

A report released in November by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, summarized corn producer compliance for planting of refuges. Data were based on industry reports submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For Bt corn targeting European corn borer, or ECB, compliance with refuge size requirements was greater than 90% from 2003 to 2005. A trend of decreasing compliance has since occurred, with compliance falling to 78% in 2008. Refuge distance compliance figures were slightly better with 88% compliance in both 2007 and 2008, but these were down from the 93% to 96% compliance from 2003 to 2006.

Compliance and trends for corn rootworm, or RW, are more discouraging. Refuge size requirements for RW went from 89% in 2006 to 74% in 2008. Corn rootworm refuge distance compliance percentages fell from 82% to 63% in the same three years.

Stacked-hybrid refuge compliance and trends were even more discouraging. Size compliance dropped from 78% in 2006 to 70% and 72% in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Compliance to the distance requirement fell from 92% in 2006 to 66% in both 2007 and 2008.

The CSPI used these data to estimate total compliance over all three categories — ECB, RW and stacked hybrids. The results averaged 73% compliance for distance and 74% for size. One out of four producers did not comply with the refuge requirements!

Does refuge compliance matter?

According to the CSPI report, this amounts to 13.2 million acres in the U.S. that are not in compliance: That’s an area the size of Iowa’s corn crop. On the other hand three out of four producers do comply.

Refuges delay the development of pest resistance to Bt corn because susceptible pests emerging from the refuge mate with resistant pests from the Bt field. This dilutes the resistance genes and maintains susceptibility of pest populations to Bt corn.

If refuges are too small or too far from Bt fields, a shortage of refuge insects to mate with insects from Bt fields will occur. When this happens, pests will quickly develop Bt resistance.

What’s at stake? At least three obvious things are issues:

• First, if compliance rates do not quickly improve, expect more demands for compliance, insistence to change the regulatory process and/or steep penalties for noncompliance from groups like CSPI — and rightly so. Based on the CSPI report, 90% or greater compliance appears necessary.

• Second, refuge requirements form an integral part of insect resistance management programs. If some corn producers continue to ignore these requirements, insects may develop resistance to Bt corn sooner.

• Third, every business enterprise, including corn production, bears a social role and responsibility. Peter Drucker, a renowned writer and business management consultant, warned that an enterprise “that fails to think through its impacts and its responsibilities exposes itself to justified attack from social forces. Consumerism and environmentalism are not enemies to be vanquished, but symptoms of business’s failure to understand its broad social role.”

Some of us ignore our social role!

Focusing on education

On the positive side, groups like the National Corn Growers Association place first priority on grower refuge compliance education programs. Certainly, with the 2010 introduction of new combinations of transgenic traits, some refuge requirements indeed will change. However, producers planting current ECB, RW and stacked hybrids must continue to follow the refuge requirements specific for those technologies.

Insects do not know property lines; our cornfields are the “commons.” Consider the environment, consumers, your neighbors, your kids, or whoever farms after your time, when deciding if you will comply with scientifically sound, government-mandated, socially responsible refuge requirements. Let’s do what we can to preserve this excellent technology!

Elmore is the Iowa State University Extension corn agronomist. ISU Extension entomologists Aaron Gassman and Erin Hodgson contributed to this column.

For more information on this topic, go online to www.agronext.


STEADY CLIMB: An increasing amount of Iowa’s corn acres has been planted to hybrids with transgenic traits the past 10 years. The chart shows the percentage of hybrids planted that contain such traits.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.