High Corn Prices Increase IPM Temptation

Temptation to cut IPM corners increases with corn prices, but doing so could undermine the technology.

Expectations of higher corn prices are leading some farmers to neglect or ignore integrated pest management strategies, and their behavior could undermine the very technologies that sustain them. That’s the message Kevin Steffey, University of Illinois entomologist, is delivering this week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston. The use of corn for biofuels production has pushed corn prices higher this year than they have been for a long time, says Steffey, who’s one of three researchers at Illinois to present at the ACS meeting. The higher return on the corn crop is encouraging some growers to use multiple pest management techniques on their crops – without first determining whether they are needed, Steffey says. “Some people are using chemical inputs when they’re not necessary,” he says. “If transgenic corn kills a percentage of corn rootworms, then some growers will put an insecticide with it to push the percentage higher.” “They’re willing to spend money without challenging why they’re spending money, simply because they can afford it,” he says. Other important strategies are also being neglected or abandoned. Some farmers are even doing away with refuges altogether – a violation of federal law. These practices will increase the rate at which target insects become resistant, Steffey says. “Some corn growers are looking at short-term gains and ignoring long-term consequences. This is a mistake repeating itself from the 1960s,” he says, noting that many growers are too young to remember the crop losses that occurred after insects became resistant to the powerful, and environmentally damaging, chlorinated hydrocarbons used in the mid-20th century. Steffey emphasized that most corn growers do follow IPM practices to control insect pests. But a few are abandoning these practices to boost profits, he says. Some growers take the new technologies, such as transgenic corn, for granted, believing that the problems of resistance will not arise with these new products. But resistance is a normal, ecological adaptation to any selective stress, Steffey says. “We have an insect, the western corn rootworm, that became resistant to crop rotation,” Steffey says. “That made us aware of what we’re dealing with: This insect is plastic, genetically, and can adapt to a lot of things.” Despite these difficulties, Steffey says, the potential rewards for corn growers are higher now than ever. And the consequences of ignoring the hard lessons learned over decades of trial and error could be dire, he said.

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