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GMO crops have reduced pesticide poisoning among farmers, report finds

Joseph Maina | Cornell Alliance for Science | December 6, 2021

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Credit: Agroportal
Credit: Agroportal

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.Many countries have enjoyed improved economies and healthier populations by farming genetically modified (GM) crops, according to a report from the United Kingdom.

A primary benefit has been a reduction in pesticide poisoning among farm workers, particularly smallholder farmers, due to the low pesticide use associated with GM crops, observes the Report on Genetic Technologies by the UK’s Regulatory Horizons Council.

In India, for instance, the report cites a 50-to-70 percent reduction in pesticide applications on insect-resistant GM (Bt) cotton, which has led to significant health benefits.

“It has been estimated that this GM crop helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning per year,” the report states. “There have also been significant economic and health benefits for small farmers growing cotton in South Africa.”

Pesticide poisoning is a persistent challenge dogging agricultural production in many parts of Africa. Despite glaring evidence of potential harm to human beings and the environment, commercial and political interests often encumber mitigation efforts. Shocking reports of pesticide poisoning keep emerging from the continent.

As noted in one study on smallholder pesticide use in sub-Saharan Africa, pesticides are a common cause of acute poisoning in the region, with many cases going unreported. GM farming has been touted as a safe way of practicing agriculture because many GM crops serve to reduce pesticide use.

The adoption of Bt cotton, for instance, can substantially reduce the risk and incidence of pesticide poisonings, as shown by a pioneering study conducted in China. Using data from a survey of farmers in northern China, the report provided evidence of a direct link between the adoption of a GM crop and improvements in human health. Similar results have been documented for Bt maize.

The adoption of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso significantly lowered pesticide use in that crop. Farmers went from spraying their conventional cotton fields 15 times per season to control bollworm to spraying only twice with Bt cotton, which saw the crop’s popularity soar. By 2014, more than 70 percent of all cultivated cotton in Burkina Faso was GM. However, the government halted the crop in 2015, causing production to plummet and pesticide use to increase as farmers returned to growing conventional varieties.

The Regulatory Horizons Council report outlines two broad classifications of genetic technologies: First-generation genetic technologies, which are the basis of today’s widely used genetically modified (GM) crops; and the more recent second-generation technologies, which include genome editing, synthetic biology and engineering biology.

The report provides an edifying treatise on first-generation GM crops, showing their potential benefits for agriculture, the environment and society. It further scrutinizes the emerging opportunities, regulations and products associated with second-generation technologies.

GM crops were first introduced in the 1990s and have seen the fastest uptake by farmers over any other modern agricultural technology. Cultivation of GM crops expanded from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 in 2015 and now accounts for over 10 percent of the world’s arable land. Reported benefits include better economic outcomes for farmers, a reduction in pest-infestation in crops, increased insect biodiversity on farms resulting from adoption of insect-resistant crops, savings in the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming, soil improvement and productivity gains resulting in potential land-saving outcomes.

The report also elucidates the emergent opportunities in agricultural biotechnology for post-Brexit UK, vouching for a rapid adoption of regulations that will be amenable to genetic technologies.Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

Despite the proven potential of agricultural biotechnologies to meet societal needs that include provision of healthier diets, climate change mitigation and contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, scientists, companies and policy makers in the UK and the EU concede that the European regulatory system for genetic technologies inhibits useful innovation, thus disadvantaging farmers.

“Since the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the Government has an opportunity to take a leading role in demonstrating how current regulatory systems can be adapted, or new regulatory systems developed, to enable innovative, safe and beneficial products of genetic technologies to reach their intended markets, at home and abroad,” states the report.

The EU adopted a process-based approach in regulating first-generation GM products, which lumped the process of genetic modification itself alongside all its products, regardless of their properties, within a common regulatory regime. This approach contrasts with the United States’ product-based approach, which focused on the product, its benefits and risks. The EU regulatory framework, along with the very precautionary and politicized approach to its implementation, has resulted in the absence of any significant adoption of GM crops in the EU and the departure of European companies working on GM technologies to the US and other countries.

Dr. Joseph Maina is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University. Joseph’s ultimate goals are to understand and predict the impacts of environmental variability and change on social and ecological systems at local and global scales to support spatial planning & management.

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and is reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly

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The Conversation

The fall armyworm invasion is fierce this year – and scientists are researching how to stop its destruction of lawns, football fields and crops

September 17, 2021 8.15am EDT

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  1. Scott D. StewartProfessor of Entomology and Director of the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center, University of Tennessee

Disclosure statement

Scott D. Stewart’s research and extension programs at the University of Tennessee are partially supported by grants and contracts from Tennessee cotton, corn and soybean commodity boards, the USDA, and from various seed and pesticide companies for evaluation of their technologies.

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Across the Northeast, Midwest, South and Southwest United States, homeowners are watching with horror as their lawns turn from green to brown, sometimes in less than 48 hours, and wondering, “What happened this year – and how did it happen so fast?”

The culprit: the fall armyworm.

As an entomologist, I can attest that their appearance is nothing new: They’re an annual problem, but the scale of this year’s invasion is unprecedented. These voracious feeders are destroying lawns and grasses, attacking golf courses, pastures, football and soccer fields – and they can completely defoliate rice, soybean, alfalfa and other crop fields within days. They are called armyworms because of their habit of marching across the landscape.

The invader

The fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, isn’t a worm. It’s a striped caterpillar, the larvae of an ordinary and benign brown moth. It’s native to the Americas and is extremely adaptable, thriving everywhere from lush forests to arid regions and in pristine, disturbed and urban landscapes.

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The armyworms’ impact on lawn grass can be dramatic. Scott D. Stewart, Author provided

This moth survives year-round in warmer locales, from the tip of South America to the southern U.S. Each year they invade more northern regions until cold weather ends their occupation.

From larvae to moth, its entire life cycle is about 30 days during the summer and 60 in spring and fall. Adult moths survive just two weeks. During that time, a female lays up to 2,000 eggs, deposited underneath leaves in clusters of 100 to 200.

The moths aren’t the problem; it’s their larvae. When eggs first hatch, the tiny caterpillars are barely noticeable, about one-sixteenth of an inch long. By the time the caterpillars reach full size – an inch and a half – they’ve become ravenous eaters.During its short life cycle, the fall armyworm can devastate important crops.

Depending on the season, the armyworms eat and grow for 14 to 30 days. Initially, they chew holes in leaves, sometimes reducing them to a lacework skeleton. If they run out of food, they become cannibals, with the larger armyworms preying on the smaller ones.

Then they burrow into the ground, encase themselves in a cocoon and pupate. When they emerge as moths, the cycle repeats, with the next generation propelling their expansion across the country.

An invasive species

Meanwhile, fall armyworms have spread across the globe as an invasive species, reaching the Near East, Asia, Australia, Africa and India. Without its native complement of parasites, predators and diseases to control it, these rapacious caterpillars pose a serious agricultural threat to these newly invaded countries.

Farming practices have fueled their proliferation. Most of these countries do not grow armyworm-resistant GMO crops and many have limited access to newer insecticides and modern application equipment.

Armyworms have been particularly destructive in sub-Saharan Africa, where they devour maize, the continent’s staple crop. Damage is estimated at US$2 billion per year. It also causes major damage to corn, rice, sorghum, sugar cane, vegetable crops and cotton.

This year’s ‘perfect storm’

Entomologist David Kerns sounded the alarm in June, warning that armyworms in Texas were bad and heading north and east. They’d gotten off to an early start, aided by good weather in their winter home range.

Once the moths are on the move, they leave their natural enemies behind, taking their new territories by surprise. They can migrate hundreds of miles, riding the winds to reinfest the northern part of their domain. But with an early start this year, they rode the winds farther than normal. By the end of August, much of the southern U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains had suffered serious assault, akin to a plague of locusts.

An adult armyworm moth (genus Spodoptera) Scott D. Stewart, Author provided
Newly hatched armyworms. Scott D. Stewart, Author provided

How do we control the invasion?

There are two ways to deal with an infestation: Wait it out, or fight. For those concerned about lawns, waiting may be the answer. Armyworms don’t feast on all grasses, and a well-established lawn will often recover, though it may not look great for a while. However, armyworms particularly love freshly laid sod, which may sustain irreparable damage.

Waiting it out isn’t an option for farmers. Applying insecticides is the only way to save crops, which may prove difficult as pandemic-fueled disruptions have left some insecticides in short supply. Success is a numbers game: Killing 80% of a group of 100 armyworms controls them, but with larger numbers of armyworms, killing 80% still means many crops will be devastated.

Some evidence also suggests that fall armyworms may be developing more resistance to certain insecticides, and it wouldn’t be the first time. This pest is infamous for developing resistance to the insecticidal proteins from Bacillus thuringiensis produced by genetically modified crops. My colleague Juan Luis Jurat-Fuentes is trying to understand how the fall armyworm becomes resistant to Bt toxins in Bt corn and cotton.

His work is also revealing how insecticidal protein-resistant armyworms are spreading their genes across the Americas. We are currently collaborating on a project using gene silencing to help control outbreaks of fall armyworm. The technique can turn off specific genes, including those that make the fall armyworm resistant to insecticides. The goal is to develop extremely specific and effective insecticides that have minimal impact on the environment and other wildlife species.

Fall armyworm on damaged corn. ossyugioh/Getty Images

The cost – and the future

The economic costs of fall armyworm invasions are high. This year alone they have preyed upon millions of acres of crops, hayfields, lawns and turfgrass. Farmers, homeowners and businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars on insecticide applications. Some farms have suffered major crop losses.

The battle is not quite over. It will continue for a few more weeks as the fall armyworm continues to spread farther north and east.

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Was this “year of the armyworm” a fluke? Will they be back? The answer to both questions is probably yes. We don’t know why fall armyworms started off en masse in 2021, but the extreme infestations were hopefully a rare anomaly. There is concern, however, that a warming climate will allow these and other subtropical and tropical insects to expand their territories northward.

We do know that armyworms will reinvade much of the Southern U.S. every year as they always have, and northern states should expect more frequent incursions from insect neighbors to the south.

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Amplicon technology: a new way to detect tobacco whitefly resistance

Tobacco whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) is a harmful pest distributed globally and can have a serious impact on vegetable production. Its resistance to crop protection is one of the difficulties in practice. Therefore, the detection of the resistance gene mutations can provide an important reference for pest management. However, the individual Bemisia tabaci is small, with a body length of less than 1mm. The traditional single-head sequencing operation is difficult, and often a small amount of gDNA is obtained, but it consumes a lot of time and resources, and new detection methods are urgently needed in scientific research.


© Tomasz Klejdysz | Dreamstime.com 

The Vegetable Pest Research Laboratory has established a method to detect gene mutation frequencies in micro-insects using amplicon technology and detected the frequency of two pyrethroid resistance-related point mutations of sodium ion channel genes in the Bemisia tabaci population. The method is efficient and reliable and solves the problem of detecting gene mutation frequency of micro-insects.

Amplicon sequencing was originally used to detect the community composition of soil, plant, or animal gut microbes, which can be used to analyze the interaction between microbes and animals and plants. The amplicon sequencing method is based on the Next-generation Sequencing technology, which has high sequencing efficiency and can perform centralized detection of a large number of samples.

The team established an efficient approach for detecting the frequency of mutation by amplicon sequencing. The frequencies of L925I and T929V in VGSC associated with pyrethroid resistance were detected in this study, which could provide foundational data for resistance management of B. tabaci.

This research provides an efficient and reliable method for detecting the frequency of gene mutations in micro-insects and is helpful to the development of pest control in the field. The research was published in the entomology professional journal Pest Management Science (impact factor 3.75), Q1 of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The first author of the thesis is Wei Yiyun, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lab. Associate researcher Wang Ran, Dr. Qu Cheng, and Dr. Guan Fang from Nanjing Agricultural University participated in part of the work. Researcher Luo Chen is the corresponding author of the paper.

Source: https://doi.org/10.1002/ps.6327

Wei, Y., Guan, F., Wang, R., Qu, C. and Luo, C. (2021), Amplicon sequencing detects mutations associated with pyrethroid resistance in Bemisia tabaci (Hemiptera: Aleyrodidae). Pest Manag Sci, 77: 2914-2923. https://doi.org/10.1002/ps.6327 

Publication date: Thu 30 Sep 2021

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