Cotton growers, agribusiness leaders and scientists attending an Aug. 23 Delta Council research committee meeting are in agreement on two points: There is no indication that the current Bt refuge requirements are failing to prevent insect resistance, and cotton growers can not afford to increase refuge acreage.
“The paramount problem is that EPA wants to increase our refuge, which will increase our costs, decrease our yields or both,” says Kenneth Hood, a cotton grower in Perthshire, Miss., and chairman of the Delta Council Advisory Research Committee. “We've got to have something that is economically feasible or farmers aren't going to do it.”
A resolution adopted by Delta Council at the recent committee meeting emphasizes the group's opposition to increasing Bt refuge requirement based on the possibility that resistance could possibly develop at some unknown future time based on the sole predictions of a computer generated model.
“Since 1996, Delta Council has urged USDA to implement a comprehensive strategy to validate the most effective and economically sustainable production system which could be implemented to insure the long-term integrity of Bt crop production and resistance management,” the resolution says. “Any resistance management plan which undermines the economic viability of utilizing Bt cotton in whole farm units will have the effect of forcing farm operators to utilize alternative cropping strategies for reducing insect costs and damages,” the resolution says.
What is needed in the search for answers concerning insect resistance management in Bt crops, according to Chip Morgan, Delta Council executive director, is additional field research by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and state universities, including Mississippi State University and the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss. “We are relying on USDA to make this issue a priority at the Stoneville research complex so the next time this technology is challenged, we have the scientific research data necessary to defend our position,” he says.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently formulating alternative resistance management strategies in order to have something on its books before the Sept. 30 expiration of the current production registration for Bt crops.
While federal officials insist that all possible options are still on the table, six proposals seem to be receiving the most attention as likely candidates. Among the potential options being discussed are either a 95:5 or a 90:10 ratio of Bt cotton and non-Bt unsprayed cotton; a 95:5 or a 90:10 ratio with the 5 or 10 percent conventional cotton embedded within a Bollgard field or field unit; and an 80:20 or 70:30 ratio of Bt to non-Bt sprayed cotton planted, with the refuge planted within one mile of the Bt cotton.
Jimmy Smith, director of the Delta Research and Extension Center and an entomologist by trade, does believe that Bollgard cotton serves as a risk management tool for Delta growers. “The boll weevil eradication program, along with this new technology, has allowed growers to cut cotton production costs, while maintaining productivity.”
However, he says, “Growers understand and have accepted the current refuge size. What's more, we have no indications at this time of target pest resistance and, with economics more critical now than ever, increasing refuge acreage would only deter farmers from utilizing the technology.
According to economic figures provided by Smith at the Delta Council research committee meeting, increasing refuge acreage requirements in the Delta could cause an 18 percent reduction in producer profits. “This issue of increasing Bt refuge requirements could have a tremendous economic impact to this area. It is important that we make the people who don't grow cotton understand the economic consequences of increasing Bt refuge requirements,” he says.