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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Aims to Lower Biotech Risk

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a series of new regulations aimed at reducing the environmental risk of corn genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide.

The decision Friday, anxiously awaited by farmers, environmentalists and the biotech industry, was viewed by many as an acknowledgment by the agency of the rising concern over the safety of biotech crops.

The corn became a rallying point for environmentalists and opponents of genetic engineering in May when a Cornell University study found that the corn's pollen could kill monarch butterfly caterpillars in the laboratory. The corn carries a gene derived from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produces Bt toxin, which kills pests that eat the plant.

While calling the evidence for harm to monarch butterflies preliminary, the agency is directing biotech seed companies to ask farmers to voluntarily protect butterflies that are not pests by planting traditional corn around the edges of Bt corn fields.

That would create a buffer to prevent toxic pollen from blowing into butterfly habitats.

The agency also announced that farmers would be required to plant at least 20 percent of their corn as non-Bt corn. Academic scientists have been urging the agency to enact such a measure for years to slow the evolution of resistance to the Bt toxin, one of the few natural insecticides available to organic farmers.

While academic scientists and environmentalists largely welcomed the rules, to be enacted this spring, some criticized the agency for seeking only voluntary protections.

"I'm very disappointed," said Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Goldburg expressed concern that biotech companies had been given the responsibility for encouraging farmers to protect monarchs.

"Given that the companies involved have spent the last six months belittling any risks associated with Bt corn pollen, this is not something that I find easy to believe will happen," Goldburg said.

Seed companies and biotech industry groups have vigorously attacked the Cornell study, taking issue with its methodology and the conclusion that the Bt corn pollen is harmful to monarch butterflies.

John Losey, an author on the Cornell study, praised the agency's actions. "It seems like agood interim approach while we gather more data," he said. While the pollen can kill monarchs in the laboratory, it is still unknown to what degree they are harmed by Bt pollen in the wild.

David Andow, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, who studies the evolution of resistance to pesticides, called the measures "a real step forward."

Scientists have long argued that farmers should plant traditional corn to provide a refuge for insect pests that are susceptible to Bt toxin. By maintaining a large population of susceptible pests, farmers increase the chances that pests resistant to the insecticide will mate with a susceptible insect. Their offspring are likely to be susceptible to Bt toxin.

Some scientists expressed concerns farmers might plant only Bt corn without notice or penalty.

In addition to its announcement Friday, the EPA last month sent out a notice requiring seed companies to initiate a series of studies to answer a detailed list of questions about what level of risk the Bt corn poses to butterflies in the wild.

Numerous other studies are under way on the safety of genetically modified corn, which was planted on more than 8 million hectares last year and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in seed sales annually.