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Study: Adopting new Bt corn is age-old decision for farmers

Agriculture.com Staff 02/14/2016 @ 5:10pm

You can't teach old farmers new tricks for controlling corn rootworms.

A Purdue University study found that as farmers approach late middle age, they are less likely to plant corn that produces Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a protein that kills corn rootworms and European corn borer insects that feed on plant tissues.

The 2004 study was based on surveys and discussions with about 1,000 Indiana farmers who grew at least 200 acres of corn. Researchers also found that farmers experienced in biotech crops are more likely to plant Bt corn hybrids, while some growers are less inclined to use Bt varieties because they find planting parts of their fields in non-Bt "refuge" corn a hassle.

As young farmers become more comfortable with biotechnology, their adoption of genetically modified corn seed increases, said Corinne Alexander, a Purdue agricultural economist and the study's lead researcher. Older farmers who've never planted Bt hybrids aren't likely to start, however.

"What we found was that age was a significant predictor in Bt corn adoption," Alexander said. "We found as producers get older and gain experience they are more likely to adopt Bt corn rootworm, but once they reach about age 48 they become less likely to adopt the technology."

The reasons, Alexander said, include time and profit potential.

"For those farmers who are much closer to retirement, they receive a much smaller benefit from trying something new because they are only going to be farming for, say, another five or 10 years," she said.

Indiana is an interesting case study for genetically modified corn adoption because the state has areas with severe, moderate and low corn rootworm problems, Alexander said.

"How a farmer controls corn rootworm in Indiana really depends on what sort of pest pressure they face," Alexander said. "In southern Indiana, most farmers wouldn't treat for it at all because there are very few corn rootworm larvae in that part of the state. In the moderate region in northeast and central Indiana, farmers may use soil insecticides or seed treatments for control. In the high pressure northwest corner of Indiana, most farmers use soil insecticides and some use seed treatments."

The control dynamic changed in 2003 when Monsanto Corp. introduced a genetically modified corn resistant to corn rootworm. Seed with the corn rootworm Bt protein became widely available for growers in 2004. Despite the new insect resistance traits, only 21 percent of Indiana's corn was planted in biotech varieties in 2004, compared to 47 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Producers now have four options in the corn rootworm fight, Alexander said. "They've got the no treat option. They've got the seed treatment option. They've got the soil insecticide option. And, now, they have the Bt corn rootworm option."

The Purdue study also found that preventing non-Bt corn from being pollinated by nearby Bt corn crops is a factor in producer adoption of the biotech seed. In addition, some farmers indicated that the extra effort in planting non-Bt refuges in or near their Bt corn crops discourages them from planting the corn rootworm-resistant seed.

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