Ask Us Anything About GMOs!

One of the greatest concerns for those of us living in areas where the GMO companies are doing research is the large amount of Restricted Use Pesticides and Herbicides that are being applied in open field testing. I'm curious as to why the amounts are so great. Is it because there exist an inordinate number of weeds and pests at research sites? If so, why is that? Or is the experimentation with chemical pesticides and herbicides being done simply to test the GMO crops resistance to the application of greater amounts and different combinations of these chemicals?

A:Expert Answer

The need for insecticides on parent seed corn arises from the high value of the crop and a need to protect the yield, and in Hawaii, there is consistent pest pressure. Among the most significant insect pests here are thrips, which vector a virus that infects the corn, and corn earworm, the larvae of which attack and feed on the developing kernels. Both reduce yields; both need to be suppressed. The companies do apply pesticides for such insect pests. People have the impression that the sprays are applied continuously, but this impression is largely created by the fact that the sprayers are seen operating frequently. This is the result of operators not being able to complete all their spraying in a single day―if the wind comes up, they need to stop and continue the next morning, for example. (They need to stop spraying to avoid pesticide drift.) So you might see them out there “all the time,” but they are not spraying the same fields every day.


That said, thrips do require frequent insecticide applications. They build up huge populations quickly, and this requires intervention in a high-value crop, such as parent seed corn. It may surprise many that the seed companies engage in practices that help reduce insecticide dependence, and they have in fact funded research on biological control options and cover-cropping practices to reduce or avoid sprays.


The fact that a number of restricted-use products are used does indeed sound worrying. But bear in mind that most of these products are pyrethroids (originally derived from pyrethrum, an organic insecticide) and are restricted because of potential negative impacts on aquatic organisms if they contaminate fresh water. Pyrethorids actually have very low mammal and bird toxicity. You can purchase pyrethroids off the shelf in supermarkets for home use. Those products have the same active ingredients as the restricted-use products. 


I am no insecticide fan myself (I work in biocontrol, mostly), but I recognize the need for insecticides in many situations. I have been impressed that the seed corn growers go to great lengths to ensure safe application practices and to use the “softest” possible products wherever possible. I am also impressed that they are prepared to invest research into finding more effective and environmentally safer options for insect management.

Topic: Impact on Environment  3 Comments | Add Comment