Stewardship Education of Growers

Growers using biotechnology understand that strict adherence to regulations and the best industry practices are key not only to maintaining the use of current technology, but also to gaining the use of future traits.

One of the most successful industry stewardship programs has been the Insect Resistance Management (IRM) Plan, in place since pest-tolerant biotech crops were introduced more than a decade ago.

Agricultural production has historically endured huge losses to pests and disease, and many methods of pest control have had limited life spans - pests adapt or evolve resistance, which reduces the long term utility of control methods. In contrast to previous developers, biotechnology companies created "resistance management plans" to delay the inevitable emergence of resistance to biotech methods of pest control and to impede the spread of any resistance that emerged. These plans have worked so well that a decade after the first large scale introductions of biotech-derived insect pest control no evidence has yet been noted of any significant resistance evolving. These programs have raised the bar on the standards of stewardship, and industry continues to build on this experience.

IRM guidelines require growers using Bt corn hybrids to plant a refuge of non-Bt corn. The goal is to forestall the evolution of resistance to BT in the target pest by maintaining a population of insects not exposed to selection pressure from the Bt toxin. Insects from the refuge would be available to breed with others in the BT-crop field, helping prevent the emergence of resistant populations over time. Farmers frequently use the same approach when rotating crop protection chemistries or other inputs to guard against the evolution of resistance in target pest populations.

The guidelines allow for a measure of flexibility in compliance because no two farms or farmers are the same. From the beginning, grower associations and companies encouraged the EPA to keep resistance management plans and refugia requirements simple and flexible. Agricultural biotechnology companies agreed, in turn, to help growers understand the needs and benefits of refuge acres and to monitor compliance.

As part of their overall efforts, biotech seed companies stepped up to educate and monitor IRM compliance. From the launch of biotech seed products, the Agriculture Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee (ABSTC), comprised of Bt corn registrants, has played a key role in grower and industry success. ABSTC is a coalition of biotech companies committed to addressing scientific issues central to the responsible stewardship of biotech products in modern agriculture.

ABSTC conducts an annual survey to measure IRM understanding and compliance. The most recent survey results from 2005 show nine out of 10 growers are aware of and are effectively complying with IRM requirements as mandated by the EPA. The third-party survey also shows 92 percent of Bt corn growers met or exceeded the minimum recommended refuge size. In a separate program of on-farm visits, 95 percent of producers were meeting refuge requirements. Both large- and small-acreage growers were meeting refuge management requirements at similar levels.

As part of the survey, growers reported seed companies and the National Corn Growers Association are leading sources of IRM information. Most growers recalled receiving an average of four pieces of IRM information or more, and three-fourths of those surveyed noted having an individual conversation with a seed company representative regarding IRM requirements.

Companies use many means of communicating IRM requirements to their customers - from invoicing and buyer agreements to ongoing publications and public relations announcements. The companies are responsible for helping their customers comply. Growers who repeatedly fail to adhere to IRM requirements risk losing access to these new technologies.