A-Maize-ing Corn

It's hard to believe this little thing causes about $1 billion in damages every year.

Corn is big in the United States. And by big, I mean really monstrously huge. The top four corn-producing states – Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota – yielded a corn crop in 2009 valued at $27.1 billion dollars.

That, my friend, is a lot of corn.

And in America, when something threatens the vitality of our bottom line, we’re not happy about it. So I’m sure that there were plenty of pissed-off farmers in 1917 when corn’s biggest enemy – the European corn borer – was introduced in the eastern United States. Only a few decades later, the pest was in the Midwest and wreaking havoc.

For every 100 corn plants, there were 59 larvae of the little buggers just waiting to bore the crap out of some corn kernels in 1996. Luckily, we Americans don’t sit back and let a little bug eat away our profits.

In order to stop the infestations, did we bring in another species to help control the little buggers? Did we spray chemicals all over the place, potentially contaminating the valuable Midwest soil? Did we break out our cannons and start shooting?

Nope. We went to the laboratory.

Bt corn is a genetically modified variety of the yellow stuff that exhibits two particular proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, the Darth Vader to the corn borer’s Luke Skywalker. These proteins actually poison the corn borer’s natural source of food while keeping it perfectly healthy for us people to consume.

Now, 14 years later, 22.2 million hectares of Bt corn are planted every year, making up 63% of the U.S. crop, and it is paying off in a big way. But what’s surprising is that it is paying off for the farms planting non-Bt corn in a much bigger way.

Lead author University of Minnesota entomology professor William Hutchison and co-author Shelby J. Fleischer, professor of entomology at Penn State, recently published a paper in Science outlining this phenomenon. They took into account estimates of what the European corn borer’s populations would be today based on the pre-Bt corn days and compared it to today’s actual numbers. This allowed the researchers to come up with an all-important dollar figure representing how much corn has been saved by splicing a few genes.

The results show that over the past 14 years, corn growers in Illinois, Minnisota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa have saved 6.8 billion dollars in corn production. But because the poisonous corn keeps the pest’s numbers down for all of the farms – not just the ones using it – and the Bt corn-free farms don’t have to pay for the more expensive seeds, they actually save more money.

In fact, non-Bt corn crops accounted for 4.3 billion dollars, or 63%, of the total amount saved.

It sounds to me like some organic farms need to send a thank you card to some of their neighbors.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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