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Our Experiences With Transgenic Crops for Insect Control

Kevin Steffey
Professor and Extension Entomology Specialist
Department of Crop Sciences
(217) 333-6652; ksteffey@illinois.edu
Kevin Steffey

Transgenic crops for insect control have become part of our research and education landscape since 1996, when the first Bt corn hybrids were introduced. From that point up through 1999, Bt corn has been grown on an increasing number of acres. However, public concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which include Bt corn, has resulted in controversies that have affected the potential use of Bt corn. In addition, densities of European corn borer have been low in the past two years. Consequently, growers in Illinois planted Bt corn on fewer acres in 2000 than they did in 1999.

European corn borer larva
Figure 1. European corn borer larva.

Despite the controversies, and in some instances because of them, research to address the benefits and limitations of Bt corn for control of European corn borer and other important insect pests of corn continue. We conduct annual efficacy trials to determine the effectiveness of commercially available and experimental Bt hybrids for controlling European corn borer, southwestern corn borer, stalk borer, and fall armyworm.

Corn rootworm larva
Figure 2. Corn rootworm larva.

Recently, we have begun to conduct field research to measure the efficacy of experimental Bt corn hybrids for control of corn rootworms. Although Bt corn hybrids for rootworm control are not yet commercially available, they will be soon. We believe it is imperative for us to have knowledge of the level of effectiveness of Bt corn against corn rootworms before growers begin to plant it. We also will conduct research to examine the benefits of corn hybrids that have "stacked" genes for insect resistance (i.e., genes that produce proteins for control of more than one pest).

In addition, we have conducted research to determine the potential effects of Bt corn on nontarget organisms. In 1997 and 1998, the incidences of two pathogens and a parasitic wasp that affect European corn borer were compared in Bt and non-Bt cornfields in Sangamon County. The results will provide insight into the deployment of non-Bt corn refuges for insect resistance management and conservation of natural enemies. Also, a research project was initiated in 2000 to collect information regarding pollination periods of corn and occurrence of different life stages of monarch butterflies throughout Illinois. Knowledge of the co-occurrence of corn pollination and monarch life stages is necessary for determination of the potential risk of Bt corn to monarch populations.

Monarch caterpillar

Figure 3. Monarch caterpillar.

The promise of biotechnology in agriculture is bright; most likely, we have observed only a bare fraction of what this promise might be. In the foreseeable future, growers will continue to plant transgenic crops as part of their pest management programs, so we need to know how to manage the technology to make certain that its benefits far outweigh its limitations. One eminent entomologist defined integrated pest management as the use of pest-control actions that will ensure favorable economic, ecological, and sociological consequences-a definition that rings true for all pest-control actions, including the use of transgenic crops.

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Department of Crop Sciences
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