A WASHINGTON-BASED group has alerted the Environmental Protection Agency that Bt refuge compliance problems need to be addressed immediately. What the group is proposing could have a direct impact on how Bt products are used, tracked and sold in the coming years.

A review of the annual Compliance Assurance Program (CAP) reports submitted to EPA shows compliance to refuge requirements that had been about 90% from 2003 to 2005 has slipped. In 2008 (the last year for reported data), nearly 25% of farmers planting Bt hybrids did not comply with their refuge requirements, says Gregory Jaffe, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Biotechnology Project.

“The EPA, producers and companies all have a vested interest to ensure the long-term viability of this technology,” Jaffe says. “We want it available for future generations and don't want the shortsightedness of companies or some producers to prevent that from happening.”

The CSPI is asking the EPA to pay closer attention to refuge compliance, even going as far as calling on the agency to pull Bt registration this year if higher levels of compliance are not met.

The report is a reminder that people are paying attention to refuge requirements and it is vitally important that producers adhere to the requirements, says Nick Storer, who serves as chairman for the Agriculture Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee (ABSTC), an industry stewardship and technical working group that includes the Bt corn registrants. “We have had discussions with CSPI on the report and have been working aggressively to increase compliance,” he says.

Ken Ostlie, extension entomologist at the University of Minnesota, notes that some growers are uncertain how to set up a refuge. However, the main dilemma is that Bt hybrids produce higher yields. “Refuge requirements are asking producers to give up something now for something long term, and that can be difficult under current economic pressures,” Ostlie says.

Adding to the confusion for 2010 is the approval of SmartStax corn, with a refuge requirement of only 5% compared to 20% for the other Bt hybrids.

“Whether 20% or 5%, producers still have to plant refuge based on the product they plant,” Ostlie says.

Bigger stick

Jaffe says 100% compliance isn't expected. “But if 90% was clearly doable several years ago, we need to get back up to that level, or higher,” he says. “It won't occur in one year, but we need to see the trend reversed. EPA needs to ensure compliance is occurring and study if current enforcement options need to be modified.”

Currently, the enforcement of refuge requirements falls on the trait providers (seed companies). Although the Compliance Assurance Program is the responsibility of each registrant, it is designed and managed collectively through the ABSTC. If an audit shows that a producer is out of compliance, companies work with the producer to ensure compliance through education and closer scrutiny of the refuge plan. Should a producer fall out of compliance two years in a row, that producer can lose access to the Bt technology.

Storer says agreements have been pulled for noncompliance. “We audit several thousand producers each year,” he says.

However, Jaffe argues that the current structure is not strong enough. “The CAP report data should be a wake-up call to EPA that the regulatory system is not working. EPA must change the obligations it imposes on the registrants to ensure greater compliance. In particular, EPA should not re-register existing Bt corn varieties until the registrants demonstrate higher compliance levels,” Jaffe wrote in his report “Complacency on the Farm.”

“I don't expect EPA to pull Bt registrations,” Storer says. “That would be a disproportionate response because of the benefits this technology brings. It is reasonable to expect additional efforts around refuge compliance, through education and monitoring.” And that could include additional paperwork, more scrutiny and additional on-farm audits. “EPA has the power to modify the registration rules and could make it harder for us to sell Bt seed,” Storer says.

“We don't know if compliance rules will change,” says Chuck Lee, vice president, Syngenta Seeds. “The IRM [insect resistance management] programs for Bt corn appear to be working, as key target pest resistance has not developed. We will continue to work with the ABSTC to develop and implement new ideas to educate, promote and enforce the IRM CAP.”

The goal, Jaffe says, is not to take Bt products off the market. “We simply want EPA to know that if refuge compliance doesn't improve, they should think about how they can protect the long-term benefits,” he says.

Under current guidelines, enforcement mandated by EPA falls on the companies. “If EPA takes a harder stance, companies are going to act aggressively,” Ostlie says. “Companies have a vested interest in protecting the longevity of the trait.”

Refuge education

Companies are stepping up efforts to educate farmers on the vital importance refuge management plays and how to best implement an IRM program.

Brent Stauffacher, corn traits manager, Dow AgroSciences, says the company has developed a threefold approach to make refuge requirements more understandable. The company's Mycogen seed bags will display specific icons that specify the refuge requirements for each seed bag.

In addition, the company has created an online refuge calculator. Producers can input specific information to calculate the refuge (www.irmcalculator.com).

A computer-based training module is set to be released that will help producers understand why a refuge is important and how to set up a refuge on their farms. “We want producers to have tools that make refuge requirements more straightforward,” Stauffacher says.

Beyond the 20% and 5% planting requirements, trait companies are working with EPA to have a “refuge-in-a-bag” system approved.

Resistance worries

Of major concern is the basic issue of resistance. Current refuge models build into them the knowledge that some adult pests will escape, thus helping to ensure that resistance within the insect population does not occur.

“Resistance models developed are based on a set compliance level. If we drop down to 80% or 70% compliance, the risk of insect resistance goes up significantly,” Ostlie says. “These risk models may seem abstract, but we're simply exploring long-term scenarios based on what we know about corn rootworms and how insects develop resistance. And developing resistance could have a detrimental long-term impact.”

Part of the concern regarding Bt resistance is the use of the Bt trait platform in current and future hybrid products.

“If resistance develops, the world may not go back to the way we farmed before Bt,” Ostlie says. “That's why it is critical we adhere to the refuge requirements to protect this technology.”