EPA Under Fire on Bt

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By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on June 1 demanding that the EPA improve how Bt insect resistance is detected, confirmed, monitored and controlled.

EPA agreed to the six requirements outlined in the report, many of which the agency has already addressed in its new "EPA Framework to Delay Corn Rootworm Resistance," released in February.

The OIG report highlights the growing scrutiny of Bt insect resistance, which has been particularly widespread in the western corn rootworm in the Corn Belt. A DTN report has also uncovered mounting evidence that Bt resistance in above-ground insects is likely to grow due to the widespread planting of refuge-in-a-bag hybrids.

In its 22-page report, the OIG highlighted major weaknesses in how industry and EPA has handled Bt resistance in the past. It concluded that these weaknesses likely accelerated the spread of Bt-resistant western corn rootworm in the Midwest, the catalyst and primary focus of the report.

Specifically, the Inspector General highlighted the lack of a consistent testing protocol for determining Bt resistance, an over-reliance on industry reports of resistance, delayed and weak responses to confirmed Bt resistance, and inadequate monitoring and data on Bt resistance and refuge compliance.

Of the six requirements the OIG laid out for EPA, only two are likely to have direct results on the experience of farmers growing Bt corn.

By March 2017, the EPA has agreed to begin publishing reports of unexpected Bt corn damage submitted annually to the agency by Bt seed companies. The reports include information on how many cases of potential resistance were investigated, where they were located, the results of sampling and resistant testing, and how the company handled the cases.

In its response to the OIG, EPA said it will "compile these reports into a publically-releasable form that will provide information on potential resistance to growers, crop consultants, extension personnel, and other stakeholders." EPA will publish the first reports by March 2017 with information from the 2016 growing season, which companies are required to submit to EPA by Nov. 30, 2016.

The EPA balked at the Inspector General's request that it collect and investigate individual growers' reports of potential Bt resistance, and OIG agreed that the annual reports from companies would suffice.

The OIG also demanded that companies and EPA react more quickly to reports of potential Bt resistance, instead of waiting for official laboratory confirmation, which can take up to a year.

The EPA had already addressed this issue in its Framework to Delay Corn Rootworm Resistance, but it reaffirmed its new strategy in the OIG report. Under the new framework, growers who find unexpected damage in their Bt corn are expected to immediately report it to their seed company. The seed company will then identify a 1/2-mile radius around the reported field, and notify growers, Extension agents, crop consultants and other seed companies using or selling that trait within that radius.

No single Bt-protein products with the compromised trait will be allowed to be used within this radius, and pyramided Bt hybrids with the trait will require a 20% refuge there. The grower will have to take steps to control the resistant rootworm population in following seasons, either by rotating to soybeans, using different Bt traits, or using non-Bt corn with soil insecticides.

The OIG's other requirements of EPA involve establishing a uniform testing procedure for Bt resistance, which will force industry and academic researchers to agree on official confirmations of resistance in the field.

The EPA also agreed to create a new website by July 2017. The OIG requested that the new website offer "more general information about biotechnology and genetically engineered crops, specifically Bt corn and insect resistance."

Finally, the annual surveys that Bt seed companies conduct and compile on grower refuge compliance will also be made publically available by July 2017. Previously, the reports were only accessible to EPA.

The EPA also noted that it has limited ability to find and act on reports of growers not complying with refuge and relies on companies for data on noncompliance, a problem the OIG report highlighted. The EPA wrote that it was "amenable to independent assessments of compliance by academic researchers or other interested parties and will assist in providing data or other information to do so."

The OIG and EPA both extolled the role "refuge-in-a-bag" Bt corn hybrids can play in ensuring compliance and slowing resistance in the report. "As noted in the [OIG] report, the popularity of 'Refuge-in-the-Bag' products has greatly reduced non-compliant acres with Bt corn," the EPA wrote.

However, recent DTN reporting has highlighted a growing body of academic research that suggests that refuge-in-a-bag products may actually be accelerating Bt resistance in above-ground insects -- a body of research the EPA is familiar with. See the story here: http://bit.ly/…

You can find the OIG report here: http://1.usa.gov/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/AG/BAS)