EPA Places Restrictions on Planting of GE Corn

From: http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/2000-01/16/206l-011600-idx.html

EPA Restricts Gene-Altered Corn in Response to Concerns
Farmers Must Plant Conventional 'Refuges' to Reduce
Threat of Ecological Damage

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2000; Page A02

The Environmental Protection Agency has placed new restrictions on the
cultivation of genetically modified corn, a response to concerns that gene-altered crops
may be causing ecological disruptions.

The new restrictions, which were released late Friday and are effective
make unprecedented demands on the producers of biotech seeds and on farmers
who wish
to plant so-called Bt corn, which has been endowed with a gene that allows
the corn
to make its own insecticide.

Among the new restrictions is a requirement that farmers plant 20 percent to 50
percent of their acreage in conventional corn, which some farmers have said
would be
burdensome and some experts said could lead to a decline in plantings of the
high-tech seeds.

Bt corn has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity among farmers since it
was approved
for sale in 1996, and was planted on more than one-third of U.S. corn acres
last year.

But some experts have warned that large-scale plantings of Bt corn may be
the evolution of "superbugs"--insects resistant to standard insecticides.

Then, last summer, Cornell University scientists presented preliminary
evidence from
laboratory studies that pollen from Bt corn could blow onto milkweed plants
and kill
monarch butterfly caterpillars. Although field studies aimed at measuring
the true
ecological impact of Bt corn on monarchs are not yet complete, the EPA
Friday that farmers voluntarily plant their conventional cornfields upwind
of their
biotech fields so the Bt corn pollen won't blow onto these refuges.

Milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs, grows
around cornfields.

Environmentalists praised the new regulations, which the EPA negotiated
with the
biotechnology industry, as a step in the right direction, if not as strong
as they
might have liked.

"Many of the companies and industries have gone to great lengths to
belittle concerns
about toxic pollen on butterflies and the development of resistance in
insects," said
Rebecca Goldburg, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York
and a
member of a National Academy of Sciences panel that is preparing a report
on the
environmental impact of gene-altered corn. "What EPA has done is to confirm
there are some serious environmental problems concerning the widespread
planting of
Bt corn."

Several varieties of genetically modified corn have been rejected by European
consumers and others because of environmental and health concerns, costing U.S.
farmers more than $200 million in exports last year. With trade tensions
rising over
the crops, and insect populations holding at modest levels in many parts of the
American corn belt, some experts were already predicting that sales of
corn might decline this spring for the first time.

A straw poll of 400 farmers conducted by Reuters last week at the annual
meeting of
the American Farm Bureau Federation found that some farmers are planning to
call it
quits with biotech varieties. Farmers said demands by U.S. consumers that
food products be labeled, and ongoing European rejection of the crops,
could depress
the prices farmers will get at harvest for the costly new varieties.

The poll results predict a 24 percent decline in plantings of Bt corn
compared with
last year, and a 26 percent decline in plantings of Bt cotton. They also
predict a 15
percent decline in RoundUp Ready soybeans--a gene-altered variety of soy that
protects the plants against the popular weed killer made by St. Louis-based
Co. and was planted on more than half of all U.S. soy acres last year. And it
predicts a 22 percent drop in RoundUp Ready corn.

Representatives from major producers of biotech seeds could not be reached for
comment, but a spokesman for Monsanto told Reuters last week that farmers
have been
pleased with the new varieties and that it's too soon to say what farmers
will do in
the spring.

The new EPA restrictions, described in letters to biotech seed producers
from Janet
L. Andersen, director of EPA's biopesticides and pollution prevention
division, could
influence those decisions for corn.

They demand that farmers plant large "refuges" of conventional corn near
their Bt
corn to reduce Bt pressures on insects and delay the evolution of
resistance in pest
populations. Farmers will not be allowed to spray refuges with conventional
insecticides unless they can prove that pests have exceeded certain levels.

And biotech seed producers and farmers will have to monitor insect
populations for
the emergence of insecticide resistance. At the first sign that such
resistance is
occurring, sales of the new seed varieties must be halted.

The rules also demand that seed producers develop grower agreements that
farmers must
sign or produce educational materials and programs such as workshops and
to ensure compliance with the rules. Companies must submit details of those
plans to
the EPA for approval by Jan. 31.

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