Daily News Archive

EPA Approves Genetically Engineered Corn for Human Consumption
(from February 28, 2003)

Next time you sit down to eat some corn, instead of corn kernels you may actually be eating PIPs. That's PIPs, short for EPA's euphemistic "plant-incorporated protectants" or genetically engineered corn. Without once mentioning the words "genetically engineered" or "genetically modified," the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on February 25 announced that it had approved the use of "YieldGard Rootworm corn," what the agency calls a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) plant-incorporated protectant (PIP) to control corn rootworm. The new corn pest control, referred to as "MON 863" and developed by Monsanto, produces its own insecticide within the plant derived from Bt, a naturally occurring soil bacterium. The Bt protein, called Cry3Bb1, controls corn rootworm, a highly destructive pest that thrives in the large monoculture fields associated with conventional chemical-intensive agriculture.

EPA introduces this PIP with a new found enthusiasm for pesticide-use reduction, something environmental advocates have called for when asking EPA to support organic agriculture, which, by the way, still grows corn, not PIPs. Organic consumers have rejected genetically engineered food and in 2000 stopped USDA from allowing the technology under the definition of organic production and processing. "This new variety of corn pest control holds great promise for reducing reliance on conventional insecticides now used on millions of acres of corn in the U.S.," says Stephen L. Johnson, EPA's Assistant Administrator for Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances. Johnson continues, "EPA has put this new product through a rigorous, science-based review process, including extensive public comment and independent scientific peer review, to ensure that it is safe for human health and the environment."

The "YieldGard Rootworm corn" will primarily be used for animal feed, but will be permitted to be marketed for human consumption. People will most likely be exposed to the genetically modified corn in processed products such as corn syrup. Many opponents of genetic engineering believe that incorporating proteins that do not occur naturally in a particular crop, may lead to increased allergic reactions by unknowing consumers. Many consumer groups advocate labeling genetically modified foods to reduce the risk of exposure.

When applied traditionally as a spray in agriculture or as a dunk to control mosquito and black fly larvae, Bt has been proven to be relatively safe and effective. Organic farmers, who rely on Bt as a means of controlling pests, are concerned that the over-use of Bt, which is inevitable when Bt is genetically engineered into every cell of a plant, will lead to insect resistance and leave many farmers without an important tool of organic agriculture.

EPA will require Monsanto to ensure that 20 percent of the planted acreage of this product be set aside where non-Bt corn will be grown to serve as a "refuge." The agency says it's doing this to reduce the possibility of corn rootworm developing resistance to Bt. But leading scientists believe that 50 percent of the planted acreage is required to effectively reduce the chance of resistance. The theory goes that these refuge areas will support populations of corn rootworm not exposed to the Bt bacterium. If all goes well, the insect populations in the refuges will help prevent resistance development when they crossbreed with insects in the Bt fields. This resistance management strategy was developed as a condition of the registration, and EPA will require routine monitoring and documentation that these measures are followed. EPA does not address the issue of genetic drift, a situation where the genetic material from the engineered plant ends up in neighboring fields of natural crops.

"The EPA decided to put short-term profits ahead of the long-term public good by agreeing to Monsanto's refuge plan of 20 percent," says Gregory Jaffe, biotech project director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit organization that supports forms of genetically modified crops. Jaffe does not believe that this genetically engineered crop can be used safely with a 20 percent refuge.

At roughly 80 million planted acres, corn is the largest crop grown in the United States. The initial release will focus on areas of eastern Colorado, and western Kansas and western Nebraska, where rootworm problems are the most severe. Monsanto hopes to ramp up seed production to have supplies for 5-6 million acres by 2005.