Cotton producer Hollis Isbell knows firsthand the value of Bt technology. In 1995, the Tennessee Valley area of Alabama where he farms, along with parts of eastern Mississippi and other Mid-South cotton areas, were devastated by the tobacco budworm. Some fields weren't even harvested, and many growers were worried that the pest had put them out of the cotton business.
But, salvation was at hand with the introduction of varieties containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, and fields that were decimated in 1995 went on to produce bumper yields in subsequent seasons. Corn growers, too, have prevented millions of dollars in losses from the European corn borer by planting Bt varieties. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 1999 alone, American cotton producers saved $100 million through the use of biotech products.
As the EPA gears up for re-registration of Bt products in 2001, its 36-member scientific advisory panel has been urged to take into account the need of American farmers to continue to have access to Bt materials that will offer economical, flexible options for pest control.
The group heard requests last week by ag organizations that the potential risks of Bt crops be considered in the context of agricultural practices and field conditions and the evolving nature of biotechnology.
"We agree with the EPA's analysis that the weight of evidence indicates no unreasonable adverse effects of Bt... to non-target wildlife, plants, or beneficial invertebrates," said Leah Porter, executive director of the American Crop Protection Association's Biotechnology Committee, which represents the major registrants of Bt technology.
"Our members have worked closely with the EPA to assess ecological and environmental impacts. We have also encouraged product stewardship, as shown by grower awareness and education in connection with Bt corn plantings as part of an extensive resistance management plan."
Porter noted that the ACPA "played a pivotal role" in the formation of the Agriculture Biotechnology Stewardship Working Group, which last November held the first symposium to address issues related to charges that pollen from Bt corn could kill Monarch butterfly larvae feeding on milkweed plants in adjacent fields.
The organization, she said, has also extended technical expertise and resources to the National Research Council, the USDA, and the Federal Grain Inspection Service on methods for detection of biotechnology products.
"Since our members are heavily involved in the development, registration, and use of modern biotechnology methods in agriculture, we are vitally interested in the panel's deliberations and proceedings," she said.
Hollis Isbell, who is chairman of the National Cotton Council's American Cotton Producers group, said the nation's cotton growers "are acutely aware of what happens" when an insect complex acquires resistance to a pesticide. "We take resistance management recommendations seriously."
Crops incorporating the Bt technology have been "a win-win proposition," bringing higher yields and lower costs to farmers while reducing the impact of pesticides on the environment, Isbell said. "The issue now is how we can best protect this technology from resistance, while maintaining its effective use for producers."
Producer cooperation is the key to success of any insect resistance management program, he noted, pointing out that cotton producers are aware of the importance of complying with refugia requirements for Bt cotton. The National Cotton Council, Monsanto, crop consultants, and Extension personnel have ongoing programs to educate growers on new options and the importance of compliance. "We are committed to this effort."
Cotton producers are "extremely excited" about the potential for Bollgard II cotton and the potential the double gene offers for reducing the chance for insect resistance management, Isbell said.
"Bt is just the tip of the iceberg as to the potential benefits biotechnology can provide for the betterment of agriculture and its ability to feed and clothe the world."