Resistant hybrids are coming The first Bt hybrids for corn rootworm control could hit the market this spring in very limited quantities. But a 2002 launch is more likely.

That's if no glitches turn up in the EPA approval of Monsanto's technology registration package, and no problems occur in key U.S. grain export markets.

Like Bt hybrids to control European corn borer, which carry different Bt genes, these new transgenic hybrids look very promising.

But with the lessons learned in the antibiotech movement, especially in foreign countries, biotech companies and university scientists evaluating this new technology are being super cautious.

Monsanto is poised to launch its Bt hybrids for rootworm control on a very limited basis this spring, according to some industry insiders. If that doesn't happen, it's prepared for a bigger-scale launch in 2002. The new hybrids will be named MaxGard and will be marketed through Dekalb and Asgrow as well as numerous regional seed companies.

Because they are in a so-called "quiet period" required by the Federal Trade Commission in relation to a stock offering, plus the sensitive EPA registration package, Monsanto officials are cautious about making predictions.

"I can only say it will be sooner rather than later," says Randy Krotz, Monsanto director of industry affairs.

"But we are working very vigorously to bring this product to market with U.S. and other regulatory agencies' approval for a 2002 launch," he adds.

University scientists who have tested the Monsanto hybrids for two years think there could be a limited launch for this growing season.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International teamed with Mycogen to identify and develop a rootworm-fighting Bt gene that Pioneer breeders will use in their products. "We're shooting for a 2002 or 2003 launch, assuming regulatory approval, of course," says Doyle Karr, Pioneer's public affairs manager.

Dow AgroSciences, which now owns Mycogen, will also have the rights to market the gene - first through Mycogen and one other seed company and later to other seed companies for use in their hybrids. University and industry insiders say other companies are certainly working to develop their own Bt genes to combat corn rootworm.

So how does this new Bt technology really look as a weapon against corn rootworm?

"We get root protection that's as good or better than with using soil insecticides," says Jon Tollefson, an Iowa State University entomologist.

"There are some pretty nice advantages to this technology if you look at things like user safety, because the farmer is not having to buy and handle hazardous pesticides and calibrate applicators," Tollefson adds.

Mike Gray, University of Illinois entomologist, echoes that evaluation. "So far, looking strictly at root injury, the hybrids appear to be very promising. Producers will need to keep in mind that there will be some root scarring with these hybrids because the larvae have to do a little feeding on the roots in order to ingest the toxins."

This new technology may be just in time, Gray adds. That's because crop rotation is failing to control rootworms in many areas of the eastern Corn Belt, and adult rootworm control in Nebraska is running into resistance problems. Also, soil insecticides are under increased EPA scrutiny.

"These transgenic hybrids will play a very, very important role in limiting rootworm injury," he points out.

Lance Meinke, University of Nebraska entomologist, says his testing results mirror those of Tollefson and Gray. "I think we and every other scientist who has been testing them agree that they are at least as effective as the soil insecticides that are on the market, and probably will provide more consistency in their control," he says.

All three of these university scientists are members of an academic group of scientists known as NCR-46, which is helping to evaluate the technology and develop resistance management strategies as part of the EPA registration process. Tollefson chairs the committee.

Predictably, Monsanto's Randy Krotz and Pioneer's Doyle Karr are jubilant over their company test results and those of virtually all land grant universities.

"We are more than satisfied with the performance of the technology in the 2000 crop year in high populations of corn rootworm," says Krotz. "And related to any insect-control biotech product is the specific reduction of pesticides used, which is a consumer benefit the public wants to hear. So environmental advantages and convenience are way up on the list of advantages for this technology."

Adds Karr: "We have some pretty impressive field trials that show it not only protects the corn roots as well as soil insecticides but also does it better."

Gray thinks this technology is so good that, if approved and priced reasonably, it could catch on like a prairie fire in wind. Why? Because it would be a more convenient and environmentally sound alternative that would simply substitute for the soil insecticides used in areas where rootworm is a big problem.

"All of a sudden we could see millions of acres across the Corn Belt devoted to this technology," Gray says.

However, Iowa State's Tollefson fears that concerns about the marketability of biotech crops may slow acceptance.

"Some farmers are starting to make comments like, `Well, that's all I really need is another corn hybrid that I don't know if I can sell in the fall or not'," says Tollefson. "So, in my mind, these concerns are starting to cloud the decision as to whether or not they are going to use the gene technology, at least in the beginning."