How Sweet Is It? Monsanto’s Bt Sweet Corn

Big, evil corporate giant (read with sarcasm) Monsanto has a new product coming to market according to its blog Beyond the Rows.  Sweet corn genetically modified to express the Bt insecticide trait that prevails in much of the conventional corn market.  This trait allows the plant to create a toxin that is harmful to certain pests that try to eat it.

Now you’ll find a lot of naysayers in the all-natural food and environmentalist movements.  There’s all kinds of places online where you can find people making all sorts of horrible predictions about GMO crops and super weeds and bugs, etc.  I happen to find it’s often the case that environmental activists often refuse or do not want to see the benefit of a new technology.

They will tell you that the “industrial” type of row crop farming that I do consumes more resources that it produces, when the fact is we are producing more all the time with less inputs thanks to technologies like the Bt toxin.

Here’s what Monsanto has to say about Bt:

“The Bt proteins in our corn are considered an environmentally-friendly way to control insects, because they are toxic only to a few specific types of insect pest. The Bt proteins and the bacterium that produces them are found naturally in soil.  In fact, Bt proteins are used by organic growers to control these same insect pests; Bt proteins are the active ingredient in Dipel, the bio-insecticide most widely used by organic growers.”

Wait a minute.  Organic farmers use Bt too?  Why yes they do.  I believe there is a common misconception by some of the non-farm population that a farm like mine hoses down everything with chemicals and that organic farms don’t use any pesticides.  Neither of those is true.  Keep this in mind while you are reading.  I DO NOT take issue with organic farming.  I only take issue with those who make false claims about what I do to make a living.

I don’t grow any sweet corn, but I do grow corn with the Bt trait so this new product is of interest to me.  How can this new product be good for the environment?  It allows the farmer to make less passes across the field for one thing.  The need to treat for pests is greatly reduced meaning a farmer doesn’t have to make another trip across a field in a sprayer for application of insecticide.  That’s less insecticide applied, less fuel for the sprayer, fewer hours on the sprayer slowing its rate of depreciation, less compaction in the field and so on.

You might wonder about those super bugs I mentioned earlier.  Stands to reason if we go after all the pests with Bt, eventually resistance will build up.  I covered that in Genetic Refugees.  Now it is true that there are reports of some insects showing resistance, but one of the reasons may be that not all farmers are doing their part planting refuge acres.  They should be.  They are doing themselves and the rest of us a disservice by choosing not to plant a refuge.  There are already rumblings of regulatory changes in this area.  Farmers may need to show what seed they have purchased in order to show they purchased refuge varieties as well.  I’m not a big fan of more government intervention, but I think this kind of thing is what government is for.  Seed companies are at the forefront on this issue as well since they are beginning to provide refuge in a bag.  That’s where up to 95% of the corn in a bag of seed is a traited variety and the remainder is a refuge.  A simpler process than having two different bags.  Although that’s not hard to figure out either.  We do it all the time.

The biggest news to me on the Monsanto blog post wasn’t that they now have GMO sweet corn, but how much less insecticide could potentially be applied to sweet corn acreage with this new hybrid.

“Sweet corn makes up less than one percent of total corn acreage in the United States (field corn and sweet corn), yet accounts for 40% of all corn insecticide treatments. Our sweet corn allows farmers to reduce insecticide use by up to 85 percent while still providing fresh, tasty ears of the product.” 

Seems to me that kind of puts a dent in the “Big Ag” companies only genetically modifying seeds to sell more chemicals.  How about them apples?  Let me know what you think in the comments.

Update 5/9/2012  Biofortified (one of my favorite sites) has a new post called “The Frustrating Lot of the Sweet Corn Grower.”  I learned a few things about the challenges of growing sweet corn.  Here are a couple highlights, but I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself.

“At best a grower might need to make ~4 insecticide sprays/season.  In some areas it can require 20 or more! One reason why so many sprays may be necessary is that the spray only does any good while the caterpillars are still outside of the corn plant. Once they get inside, they have an easy meal.”

“Because the corn is husked, the USDA pesticide residue analysis of sweet corn almost never finds any detectable residues (even the misleading“dirty dozen list” says sweet corn is cool).”

About Brian

Farming 2300 acres of corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat with my father and grandfather in Northwest Indiana.
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19 Responses to How Sweet Is It? Monsanto’s Bt Sweet Corn

  1. Megan Brown says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m always curious what the actualy farmers who grow these crops think. Keep up the great work!

  2. Pingback: A Farmer's Life on Monsanto’s Bt Sweet Corn | The #Agvocate |

  3. Organic Farmer says:

    You parrot one of the most disingenuous arguments that proponents of GMOs use, that being the application of less pesticide. While it is true that less pesticide is applied in the field, Bt PIPs (plant incorporated protectants) actually increase human exposure by three to five THOUSAND times through increased concentrations and the fact that the Bt is now IN the food and can’t be washed off like in organic applications. While Bt may be considerably less toxic than synthetic pesticides, fact is it remains a powerful BIOLOGICAL control, one that can affect human and animal health through chronic exposure. BTW this is only one on MANY concerns surrounding GE crops (1). You also neglect to mention that “GE crops have increased overall pesticide use by 318.4 million pounds over the first 13 years of commercial use, compared to the amount of pesticide likely to have been applied in the absence of HT and Bt seeds.”(2) The fact that you neglect to mention these important facts indicates that you are either not being truthful or that you are ignorant of these realities. In either case it would indicate that people cannot depend on what you say and leads me to doubt your claim “I DO NOT take issue with organic farming.” Your other arguments for environmental benefit are realtively insignificant and simply a diversion.

    An Organic Farmer

    2.The Organic Center Critical Issue Report: The First Thirteen Years

    • I can see how you could draw those conclusions from this one post of mine, and I won’t pretend to think things are always all rainbows and butterflies. Glyphosate usage has certainly gone up since 1996. I was just on twitter the other day and I know I’ve stated it online before that RoundUp has been used too much and I’m glad we’ve had a chemical rep who has believed in rotating modes of action for a long time. It’s no different than seeing all these parents in malls and elsewhere pulling out their hand sanitizer all the time. It increases the pressure of natural selection. Mother Nature will find a way to beat you at every turn, I have no doubt about that.

      By the way, we ordered quite a bit of non-Bt corn this morning. Our waxy and popcorn varieties are not RoundUp Ready, and we make sure to plant our refuge acres for Bt corn. Also we are going to try not running liquid insecticide at planting next spring, instead opting for seed treatments. Obviously my farm doesn’t represent all farms, so I can only speak for myself, and I mentioned in this post that not all farmers are using Bt technology as intended which affects all of us. I don’t think I’ve been untruthful and I’m certainly not ignorant since I do this for living and want to keep doing so, as I constantly searching for new and better ways to farm. I’ve studied a fair amount of genetics, economics, agronomy, soil science, etc. We’re keeping a lot more acres in no-till starting this coming year (actually right now), and there is a cover crop field day coming up locally at the end of this month that I’d like to attend. Those are trends picking up steam in conventional farming. Just some more ways to use available technology and practices to be a better steward with the hope of putting some more money in your pocket at the end of the year.

      Here’s a site that refutes all Mr. Smith’s claims, so I guess that street goes both ways.

    • kevinfolta says:

      Hi Organic Farmer. It does not matter if you eat a thousand or a million times more Bt protein. It has no biological effect on non-target organisms*. The mechanism of action is precise. There is no evidence of problems to humans from chronic exposure. If you have it, please present it, I would love to see it. It has to be from a peer-reviewed journal, not a website or book.

      You also are wrong about increased pesticides on Bt crops, especially if they are used properly. The greatest evidence of decreased pesticide use comes from China and the use of Bt cotton. Here hundreds of thousands of TONS of chemical pesticides are NOT used thanks to Bt. Here’s one report from a top-tier journal. Many others:

      Click to access Pray.2002.pdf

      I did try to source your claim, but that is a website, so it means nothing to me. The anti-GMO interests are notorious for fabricating information. We need to stick to peer-reviewed evidence to make the best decisions.

      I also do not take issue with organic farming, other than I hate to call it “organic” which is just a marketing term at this point. My interests in agriculture are low-impact, low-input agriculture. In my crystal ball, I see the best of organic/sustainable techniques and biotechnology working together to limit environmental impact and deliver superior products for consumers. Thanks.

      * This not entirely precise. Some studies feed Bt to non-targets and some small changes have been observed, but they are negligible and not likely to reflect on-farm use.

      • Brian says:

        I can see my farm and likely many others at this point in 5-10 years. Using conventional hybrids and/or GMO crops as you see fit. Greatly reduced, strip, or no tillage at all and growing cover crops whenever possible. Biotech and precision ag will continue to help us be more environmentally friendly.

      • Ankit says:

        Fantastic !

  4. Anonymous says:

    Bt is found in the soil, but no in such large amounts. The Bt bacteria is in a grounp of 3 soil bacteria which are considered in the same family. One of these 3 bacteria is the Abthrax Bacteria.
    Excuse me but I have no desire to eat plants that have been modified by genectic engineering, a new science that no one really knows much about. And the base line arguement, that should GMO crops increase the food supply, every species expands to the available food supply, and not to be callous, the planet is already over-populated with oil and other resources being consumed faster than they can be replaced.

    • kevinfolta says:

      The Bt protein is produced by Bacillus thruengensis (hence Bt), a natural soil bacterium.

      Anonymous, I wish you had the cojones to use your real name. In our over-populated planet we may be looking for volunteers to step off, and those opposed to useful technology and science are logically the first that might wish to do us all a favor and take one for the team. If you wish to limit how technology can help others, you really should not receive benefit.

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  8. Matt Laridon says:

    Thanks, nice to hear from an actual farmer. I don’t know much about agriculture, but I got into a big debate on an environmentalist blog site I frequent this week, because I decided to research some of the claims made against GM crops, and discovered they appeared to be false when I actually looked up the scientific research. Of course when I shared my findings with links to the various papers refuting some of the claims, I was called a “shill for Monsanto” and troll and sock-puppet, and told that Monsanto controls all the scientific research.

    I just try to be open to new technology. I consider myself something of an environmentalist, but there does seem to be a strong anti-technology element on many environmentalist movements. Some of the comments were pretty extreme, such as GM crops causing the extinction of all insects, or at least bees and monarch butterflies depending on the commenter, Monsanto causing mass suicide in India, GM crops being responsible for all modern diseases. It’s almost like mass hysteria. . .

  9. Hello Brian,
    I have been doing research on GE grains for a college research paper. Just today I came across your website. It is a breath of fresh air to read the words of a friendly, knowledgeable person, as opposed to emotional, slanderous hype or corporate advertising. Your personal experience, logic, and goals are very reassuring though I am still not convinced of the long term safety of consuming GE ingredients. I began my paper with the intent of showing how dangerous these foods are. Now as I finish it up, the main conclusion that I have come to is that the jury is still out. I appreciate your comments about how you are planning to change some of your farming methods and are always looking for better ways of farming. Thank you for your honesty, kindness, and respectful replies. Nancy Lauderdale P.S. May I quote you please?

    • Brian says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Nancy. You’ve pretty much summed up the goal of this blog. Biotech certainly isn’t the solution to everything, but it’s a tool in the toolbox and should be used properly. I’m glad you’re looking at this with an open mind. For many it’s all or nothing, and I’m talking about both sides here.

      Yes you can quote me. Anything in particular in mind?

    • Brian says:

      May I ask what kind of class this is for?

  10. Paul Harte says:

    Thanks for the info about Bt sweet corn. I prefer to hear the real dirt from the people doing the work on the ground, than from the talking monkeys on TV. Without farmers, no food, & Happy 2013!

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