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EPA cuts refuge farmland to make way for Monsanto GM SmartStax

Monsanto Company and Dow AgroSciences received preliminary approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to advance SmartStax Corn, a multi-trait genetically modified crop that could blanket more than 4 million acres in its first year of availability.

Earlier this week, Monsanto and its partner, a division of the Dow Chemical Company, received registration from the EPA and regulatory authorization from CFIA. The decisions allow a reduction of structured farm refuge from 20 percent to 5 percent for SmartStax in the U.S. Corn Belt and in Canada. The refuge reduction in the U.S. Cotton Belt would drop from 50 percent to 20 percent.

Currently, U.S. farmers are allowed to plant up to 80 percent of their acreage with insect-resistant crops, but must plant the remainder [refuge] with unprotected crops in an effort to reduce the possibility that insects will develop a resistance to the trait.

SmartStax, however, is designed to offer seeds that have eight different genes for herbicide tolerance and insect-protection in hybrids, according to Monsanto Company officials. The theory is that while an insect can be resistant to one toxin, it would be susceptible to another. The multi-trait combination means insects are less likely to become resistant, which allows farmers who use the new genetically modified seeds to plant more land using SmartStax.

The regulatory nods mark the crossing of a significant hurdle in the companies' intention to launch the seed next year.

Nathan Fields, biotechnology director and an economic analyst for the National Corn Growers Association, said the approval will allow farmers using SmartStax to realize a more efficient production system. Because they will be able to plant 15 percent more land with the product, farmers will use less traditional pesticides on that land and that decreases the environmental impact in corn production. Biotechnology, he said, has displaced 630 million pounds of active ingredients that would have otherwise been used in herbicides and insecticides.

"And it will decrease their input cost and they could have a greater potential for yield," Fields said. "[SmartStax] is a combination of current technology that is already out there to create a more robust product. It's not a new technology, but a re-application of technology … for those who choose to use the product."

But Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, calls it a monopoly that would reduce important refuge buffer lands, strip farmers of choice and likely fail to stop insects from developing a resistance to the multi-trait crop. He said he believes the EPA caved to industry pressures.

"I was disappointed in the EPA decision because they reduced the acreage requirements," Freese said. "If you look at independent scientists, they are concerned about deduction in refuge. Insects can evolve in multiple toxins and the whole basis for putting different toxins toward resistance can be fundamentally flawed."

Bruce Tabashnik, an insect researcher at the University of Arizona, said SmartStax may not be able to prevent at least one insect from morphing and becoming resistant.

"For the European corn borer worm, this should work beautifully," he said, "but there is more uncertainty for the corn root worms and the reason is because we don't' have as much history in the field … to control them in the SmartStax. The available data suggest that each of the two toxins that control root worm are not produced in a high enough concentration."

Tabashnik said Monsanto is likely aware the problem, but is moving forward, anyway. Mimi Ricketts, a Monsanto spokeswoman, said the company wouldn't get regulatory approval if its products didn't accomplish their intended and advertised objectives. She said Monsanto "ensures long-term durability for a biotech trait. We're very confident [in SmartStax]. It takes us almost a dozen years to bring a product to market."


The reduction in refuge land also means the biotech companies can sell more of their products, but those buying will likely pay more, Freese said.

"The more traits, the more expensive it is," he said. "Eight in a single variety is going to be expensive, and the prices of corn and other seed have been rising dramatically, but farmers have very little choice. There's already very few seed companies selling seeds, so when you have a collaboration that reduces competition, that's a real problem because farmers have less opportunity to access conventional seeds, or more affordable seeds."

While NCGA's Fields agrees that the SmartStax corn seed will be more expensive, he disagrees that farmers will pay more in the long-run, or that the marketplace lacks competition.

"Biotech companies have tried to determine how much value they provide with a bag of seed and how much additional revenue the producer will realize by using a premium product," he said. "[Producers] will likely spend less on pesticides. The plant may be more efficient with insect protection above and below ground and needs less [fertilizer] put on it. These products are designed to be more efficient."

SmartStax is the outcome of a cross licensing agreement and research development collaboration signed in 2007 between Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences. Fields said the two will likely split now and sell the technology separately. In addition, he said there are four major companies developing and marketing new products all the time.

"We feel there is sufficient competition in the market," he said.

Ricketts agreed and added that Monsanto broadly licenses the traits to seed companies to allow more farmers to use the technology.

Biotech corn is currently grown on up to 73 million acres in the United States, Ricketts said, but not all of that comes from Monsanto-produced seed.

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