Bt could stand for "big trouble" in the years ahead if farmers aren't careful in their use of biotech corn, says Christian Krupke, a Purdue University entomologist.
Corn varieties containing Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, genes to control corn rootworms and corn borers, and genetically modified to withstand Roundup herbicide, could become more susceptible to rootworms unless growers keep soybean fields free of volunteer corn and continue planting refuge acres, says Krupke.
"We need to stay a step ahead of rootworm resistance development," Krupke says. "If there's one thing we know about insects, it's that they figure out a way to adapt to whatever we throw at them."
Rootworms are a major threat to corn crops, costing farmers about $1 billion a year in yield losses and control expenses. About 30% of Indiana's estimated 6.45 million corn acres were planted to multi-trait biotech varieties this year, including the Bt/Roundup triple stacks.
While transgenic varieties have helped growers boost corn yields, those varieties could unintentionally produce stronger, tougher-to-control rootworms when farmers rotate their cornfields to soybeans the following year, Krupke says. Rootworms feeding on volunteer corn – maverick plants that grow from seed produced by the previous year's crop – are exposed to Bt but at less-than-toxic levels.
"What we found was that in areas where triple-stack corn was planted in 2006 and soybeans in 2007, we had a great deal of volunteer corn in some of those fields," Krupke says. "Most of that volunteer corn showed up as being Roundup Ready and as having the Bt gene for rootworm.
"The problem is that the Bt, for whatever reason, isn't expressed at the same level as Bt that you'd get in off-the-shelf corn. So, you get a lot of rootworm larvae eating that volunteer corn, and they are able to survive on it. That's a concern because now you're getting insects exposed to sub-lethal doses of Bt that survive to mate and lay eggs and possibly develop stronger offspring. That is exactly what we don't want."
Volunteer corn is considered a weed and is usually controlled with herbicides. Controlling that corn becomes more difficult when it is both resistant to glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – and growing in Roundup Ready soybeans. In recent years about 90% of Indiana soybean acres have been planted to Roundup Ready varieties.
"Most soybean growers have relied on Roundup as their No. 1 – and sometimes only – weed control for a long, long time," Krupke says.
Farmers have several herbicide options for controlling volunteer corn, says Bill Johnson, Purdue Extension weed scientist.
"To control volunteer Roundup Ready corn in soybeans, farmers should use Assure II, Select Max, Fusion or Raptor tankmixed with glyphosate," Johnson says.
Another factor that could hasten rootworm resistance to Bt corn is improper or insufficient planting of refuge corn. Planting refuges alongside Bt corn crops is required by law.
"A refuge is anything that is not Bt corn," Krupke says. "So when you plant Bt corn for rootworm or corn borer, for every 80 acres you plant of the Bt you have to plant 20 acres of the refuge.
"The thought behind the refuge is that you have some insects in that refuge that are never exposed in their lifetime to Bt. They never have an opportunity to develop resistance to it. The only way insects develop resistance is by exposure. The more you expose them, the greater the pressure is for them to be resistant. So, you want to generate some insects that are never exposed to Bt so that they will mate with the ones that are exposed to Bt to dilute the chances of those offspring being resistant."
Killing all rootworms by planting 100% of acres in Bt corn is neither the objective, nor is it possible, Krupke says.
"If you expose the entire rootworm population at the same time to Bt, the insects will either have to become resistant or go extinct," he says. "We have made zero species of insects extinct, so you can figure out which way it is going to go."
Even in cornfields where refuge acres were planted, Krupke and fellow Purdue entomologists have found troubling signs.
"We've looked at the relative sizes of rootworm beetles coming out of the transgenic and refuge corn and found some large females coming out of the transgenic blocks," Krupke says. "That is important because large females tend to lay more eggs and are preferred by the male beetles because they lay more eggs."
Farmers need to remain vigilant when they plant Bt corn to ensure the technology is around for a long time, Krupke says."If we don't do the things that we need to do, then we're eventually going to have products that are not effective against rootworm," he says. "The two primary things would be to continue planting the refuge and, in areas where you are rotating corn with soybeans, clean up any volunteer corn that you have in the field. You need to do the latter because volunteer corn is a host, and that's where rootworms can develop. There will be a lot of eggs in those first-year soybean fields that were in corn the year before."