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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Aroostook County, Maine is responsible for producing billions of pounds of potatoes each year. Potato Beetles have been known to decimate potato plants, but a new hybrid superspud has been genetically engineered to create its own pesticide to try and outsmart the adaptable beetle pests once and for all. Dan Grossman has this spud report.


CURWOOD: For decades biotechnology boosters have promised a second green revolution in agriculture. They pledged new, more efficient crops, heartier strains of plants, and resistance to pests. Biotech companies are now beginning to make good on their promise. This year the first crop of potatoes, genetically altered to produce its own pesticide, was put on the market, and will soon be in food stores. Monsanto, the company which created this super-spud, says it eliminates the need for many chemical sprays. But many organic farmers, who usually welcome reductions in pesticide use, say this new potato is a bad idea. We sent Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman to northern Maine to find out why.

(A dog barks; footfalls and crickets)

GROSSMAN: Aroostook County, Maine, is potato country. Nearly 2 billion pounds of spuds, 4% of the nation's appetite for chips, fries, and baked potatoes, is grown here by farmers like Jim Gerritsen.

GERRITSEN: Meg, why don't you take the first 2 and I'll take the second 2 rows?

MEG: Yeah.

(Water splashing)

GERRITSEN: Peter, why don't you go with mom and her two rows?

(Dry brush crackling underfoot)

GROSSMAN: There's dirt under Jim Gerritsen's fingernails. He works 10 acres of potatoes with his wife Megan and 2 young sons. Today they're scouting their field for diseased plants and pests.

GROSSMAN: What's that?

GERRITSEN: The striped guy on top next to the big larva, that's the adult Colorado potato beetle. He's a hard shell --

GROSSMAN: What are you doing?

GERRITSEN: Oh, I'm just squishing them. They don't come back after that.

GROSSMAN: The potato beetle doesn't look menacing. It's small, about the size of a pinto bean. But it has a big appetite.

GERRITSEN: I've seen fields where the potato bugs have completely denuded all the leaves off the plant down to the stems so that there is no green matter. Potato bugs have the capability of bringing near total crop failure.

GROSSMAN: The Gerritsens are organic farmers, so they can't rely on synthetic sprays for protection. Instead they use a variety of tricks to control pests.

GERRITSEN: The first and foremost action that we have is common to all organic farmers, and that's crop rotation.

GROSSMAN: But often, that's not enough.

GERRITSEN: Then if we have need in a common year, we would be spraying the BT.

GROSSMAN: BT stands for bacillus theringiensus, a natural insecticide made from a bacterium found in soil. BT is the only insecticide Jim Gerritsen uses, and some years it's critical.

GERRITSEN: It is the single most effective way of controlling the potato bug.

GROSSMAN: But he says this natural safeguard may soon become ineffective, the victim of work going on at a laboratory about 40 miles away, in Island Falls, Maine.

(Fans, a door closes)

FELDMAN: This is a test tube containing a russet Burbank new leaf.

GROSSMAN: Jennifer Feldman, a manager at the Nature Mark Company, holds a plastic vial in the palm of her hand. Inside is a spindly green plant cutting suspended in a clear nutrient solution. It's an immature russet Burbank, the most popular potato in America. But this is no ordinary russet Burbank. This cutting has been genetically altered to fight the potato's nemesis.

FELDMAN: And it's had a gene introduced that makes it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, so that the Colorado potato beetle can no longer feed on this plant, and growers don't have to apply pesticides to control it.

GROSSMAN: Scientists at Nature Mark, a division of the chemical giant Monsanto, splice the toxic producing gene of the BT bacterium into the russet Burbank plant, so this new type of potato called New Leaf produces the same potato beetle poison that farmer would otherwise have to spray on. Technicians here produce seed stock for growers across North America. This year is the first the New Leaf potato was commercially marketed, and so far growers say they're pleased with the results.

BURSE: I think this technology's just fabulous. It's really going to help our operation.

GROSSMAN: Farmer Ned Burse has about 50 acres of New Leaf potatoes on his land. He says this high tech crop is an environmental blessing.

BURSE: I've got 5 kids at home and we have ponds and they like to go out and fish and swim and if I can get away from spraying pesticides that's my goal.

GROSSMAN: When it comes to insecticides, potatoes are among agriculture's most intensively sprayed products, and such poisons often pose an environmental threat. Farmers sometimes apply insecticide the day seed is planted and don't stop until the end of the season. On the east coast, where the potato beetle is one of the major pests, the New Leaf potato could significantly reduce the use of chemicals. But some insect specialists are worried. Professor Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, says the genetically altered potato could be a threat to organic farmers.

GOULD: If I were an organic farmer, and I was using BT and being very careful with it and using it only once or twice a year and trying not to use it at all, I would have a concern.

GROSSMAN: Professor Gould says beetles exposed to the New Leaf potatoes could quickly become immune to the BT toxin. That would make Nature Mark's potato obsolete, and would also doom the BT spray so important to organic farmers. Researchers have discovered that no matter what poison you spray, sooner or later a strain of insects will evolve that's immune. It's a major problem in agriculture.

GOULD: There are now over 500 reported cases where an insect is resistant to an insecticide.

GROSSMAN: Professor Gould says the same problem occurs when bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics used in medicine. In the case of insects, the Colorado potato beetle develops resistance faster than just about any bug.

GOULD: There's a chart that is famous in entomology, of Colorado potato beetle versus insecticides. And you see this war going on, with the chemical companies constantly coming out with new classes of insecticides, and then a few years later the Colorado potato beetle beating out that pesticide.

GROSSMAN: But the makers of New Leaf say they have the situation under control.

FELDMAN: Nature Mark, from very early on, has had the goal of developing a resistance prevention and management plan before the product ever got to the marketplace.

GROSSMAN: Nature Mark manager Jennifer Feldman says the concentration of BT toxin in the genetically altered New Leaf potato is so high it kills every potato beetle wherever it's planted. So there are no survivors to breed and produce a resistant strain. Just in case a rare mutant beetle does survive, the company has a plan. It's a way to prevent the bug from meeting up with the mutant mate and producing BT-resistant offspring.

FELDMAN: And the way you do that is by ensuring that there are some potatoes out there that can produce insects that are never exposed to BT, and that's called a refuge area. It's more or less a safe haven for susceptible insects.

GROSSMAN: Nature Mark asks New Leaf growers to plant at least 20% of their potato crop with varieties that don't contain the BT gene. The theory is that if BT tolerant mutants appear in the New Leaf patches, they will be more likely to mate only with normal beetles living in the refuge plots. But Fred Gould and other entomologists say the plan can easily go awry.

GOULD: If the farmer says oh, I'll plant the 20% susceptible fields, the ones that don't have BT in them, and then over-sprays that with a harsh insecticide, well, the strategy's fallen apart.

GROSSMAN: The problem is, most farmers won't leave the plots of regular potatoes open to beetle infestation. So they'll spray the patch with chemicals, killing most of the insects inside and destroying the refuge. Dr. Lynn Goldman is head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Substances and Pesticides Office. She says preventing BT-resistant Colorado potato beetles from appearing was a major goal when EPA approved the genetically altered russet Burbank potato. And she says the Agency is keeping close tabs on the situation.

GOLDMAN: We have made it a priority to make sure that there is monitoring for resistance and the development of resistance in association with these new BT crops, and that action is taken if resistance is found.

(Dry brush crunching underfoot)

GERRITSEN: Go ahead and put that wire on across the road, Meg.

(Metal being extended)

GROSSMAN: Organic farmer Jim Gerritsen is done scouting his potato patch. He says by the time resistant bugs are spotted, it may be too late. This year, there were few potato beetles and he didn't spray at all. Next year could be different.

GERRITSEN: The concern for me is that we're going to lose a material which frees us from having to use the hard chemicals that most of our neighbors use. It will take away from us the most effective means we have of controlling one of the most destructive insects in American agriculture.

GROSSMAN: The likelihood that a strain of BT-resistant potato beetles will arise increases as the acreage planted in altered crops grows. This year, New Leaf russet Burbanks were planted on 10,000 acres, a tiny fraction of the nation's crop. But next spring, Nature Mark hopes to quadruple the acreage sowed, and it's introducing other varieties with the BT gene as well. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman reporting from Aroostook County, Maine.



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