Seed dealers are an important link between seed companies and their farmer customers. Most corn growers already know that. And industry survey results from this past year simply reinforce that fact, says Fred Yoder, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and a farmer/seed dealer, based in Plain City, OH. Now, however, the strength of that link is critical to the success of new regulations the EPA has established, effective for 2003, to manage the placement of corn containing the gene Bacillus thuringiensis, typically referred to as Bt corn.

“There's more accountability now, whereas perhaps there wasn't as much before,” Yoder says. The original compliance program, established by the EPA in 1999, was formed under the Insect Resistance Management (IRM) requirements.

Aiming for 100% compliance

Yoder explains that the Bt corn grower compliance rate currently is roughly 90%, which is commendable by anyone's standards. Greg Wandrey, director of product stewardship for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, agrees. “We feel really good about that rate of compliance,” he says. “The overall objective for IRM requirements and compliance with them is to preserve the long-term effectiveness and use of the Bt corn technology.”

Still, the new program will help the remaining 10% of growers to better understand, meet and adhere to the requirements. Plus, industry experts are quick to note that many situations of noncompliance have occurred for reasons other than a blatant disregard for the regulations.

“There are still some growers who just don't know the requirements, or they get in a hurry when they replant, or maybe they've picked up a new 40-acre field and aren't taking the time to determine what's planted around it,” Wandrey says. “It's those kinds of things that we still need to work on as an industry to help growers with.”

Yoder agrees and encourages corn growers to contact their seed dealer if they have any questions about the requirements. “Our suggestion is that when you're planning your Bt placement, call your seed dealer for help,” he says. “We don't want to assume that farmers know how to do a refuge, for instance. We want to make sure the requirements are understood.”

EPA requirements

The regulations for Bt corn require that growers maintain at least a 20% non-Bt corn refuge. Bt cornfields must be located within ½ mile (preferably ½ mile) of their refuge cornfields. Within certain corn/cotton areas of the South, growers are required to plant at least a 50% non-Bt corn refuge.

Wandrey reports that under the IRM Compliance Assurance Program, the seed companies that sell the Bt technology — namely, Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto Company and Syngenta Seeds — will evaluate the extent to which growers are adhering to the IRM requirements. Those growers who do not must be brought back into compliance or risk losing access to the technology. “There will be in-person assessments done with growers, and they probably will be random to some extent,” Wandrey notes. “We still are working out those details.” However, he adds, “The good news is that all four registrants have the same set of requirements for growers to follow, so it's a uniform set of requirements.”

NCGA reports that with the implementation of the new assurance program, those growers who are not in compliance in a given year will be issued a written warning, which will be followed by an on-farm compliance assessment.

The following are additional requirements of the program:

  • Bt corn growers are required to sign a stewardship agreement before accessing Bt technologies and to reaffirm that pledge annually.

  • Dealers, seed company representatives and the registrants are obligated to ensure that growers are informed of the IRM requirements or they could lose their authority to sell Bt products.

  • Bt corn registrants also are required to sponsor an annual survey, conducted by a third party, to measure the degree of adherence to IRM requirements.

Protect the technology

Yoder says corn growers can only benefit from policing themselves and showing EPA they can handle the technology. “If we can show that we can handle this technology appropriately, then it will help us access new technologies as they become available,” he says. The alternative is that corn growers who do not comply with the requirements will lose the option of using Bt corn, and dealers will lose the privilege of selling Bt seed. Ultimately, Yoder adds, the EPA can remove the technology from any of the seed companies that sell it or even remove it entirely from the marketplace if compliance requirements are not met.

Of the nearly 80 million acres of corn planted in the U.S. last year, roughly 26% or 21 million acres were planted to Bt corn. Mike Phillips, executive director of Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade organization that represents the four seed companies that sell the Bt technology, says that, based upon European corn borer infestations this past growing season, he anticipates the percentage of Bt corn grown will be slightly higher in 2003.

Wandrey adds: “The message we need to get out is that we have both a contractual agreement and a stewardship obligation as growers, dealers and seed companies with Bt corn. We just need to simply follow the requirements.”

For more information about IRM and biotechnology, visit the NCGA Web site at www.ncga.com/biotechnology/main/index.html.