Altered corn aids natural variety

Toxin kills borers in nearby fields

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MINNEAPOLIS | This corn turns out to be a very good neighbor.

Corn that’s been genetically engineered to resist attacking borers produces a “halo effect” that provides huge benefits to other corn planted nearby, a new study finds. Because the borers that attack the genetically modified crops die, there are fewer of them to go after the non-modified version.

Given that the corn borer has cost U.S. farmers $1 billion a year, the economic benefits are dramatic, according to the report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

The genetically modified plants, called Bt corn, have had an economic benefit of $6.9 billion during the past 14 years in the five Upper Midwest corn-producing states studied, concluded the researchers. They were led by William Hutchison, head of the entomology department at the University of Minnesota, and Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin.

They said they were surprised to find that non-Bt corn acres actually reaped 62 percent of the benefit, or $4.3 billion. That’s because of the pest-control effect and because non-Bt seed is cheaper.

“We knew there was a benefit but we didn’t realize it was going to be that high,” Mr. Hutchison said in an interview.

An accompanying commentary in Science by entomologist Bruce E. Tabashnik of the University of Arizona calls the study groundbreaking, partly because it’s the first to do an economic analysis on the effect based on large-scale, long-term data.

Bt corn gets its name because it’s engineered to produce a toxin with a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The toxin kills the European corn borer caterpillar but is considered harmless to people and livestock, so Bt corn has become highly popular since it reached market in 1996. It’s now planted on about 63 percent of all U.S. corn acres.

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