The bugs are winning the Bt fight

Twenty years ago, when I was still a staff reporter at the local, daily newspaper, I interviewed a professor of agriculture at the University of Guelph. At the end of the interview about a certain issue of interest to local farmers, I mentioned I was also a small-scale market gardener who tried to use organic methods. They included the use of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control the caterpillar stage of certain lepidopteran (moth and butterflies) insects that feed on corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other crops. I told her I had recently learned U.S. government Environmental Protection (EPA) regulators had approved the genetic engineering of Bt with corn and wondered what she thought.

I will never forget her comment in response to my question: “Nature abhors a vacuum,” she said, adding “sooner or later” the bugs will develop resistance.

Over the years since then as the use of Bt hybrid corn, and other Bt genetically modified crop seeds, has steadily and greatly increased in the U.S. especially, and in Canada and 16 countries, I have wondered when what she said would happen.

I got the answer a few days ago when I found the latest issue of the Ontario farm-information newspaper, Farmtario, in my mailbox: it has already started to happen — a couple of years ago, in fact; and government regulators in the U.S. and Canada are now considering regulatory changes in hopes of stopping or slowing down the advance of Bt-resistant super bugs. The use of ‘super’ there is my choice of word, because as far as I’m concerned that’s what it amounts to if Bt is no longer useful as an organic solution.

The Farmtario article was perhaps not strictly speaking ‘breaking news’ and therefore worthy of front-page coverage, other than a teaser that referred to an article on Page 10 about ‘The challenge with Bt.’

And it was written in a way that would make it difficult for non-farmer consumers to understand what it’s about. I’m not saying that’s deliberate. And after all, Farmtario is aimed at farmers, so presumably there’s apparently an assumption they know what the jargon like “Bt hybrid corn” means. But, it’s not a hybrid in the traditional sense of cross-breeding different species of the same type of plant to create a new hybrid variety. That’s been done for thousands of years, not 20. “Bt hybrid corn” is misnomer camouflage to hide what it really is: Bt Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn.

The “challenge” referred to by the Farmtario article is rooted in the fact more than 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is ‘Bt hybrid.’ The same is true of Bt hybrid cotton. Evidence of growing resistance to Bt ‘traits’ has been reported in recent years and recently confirmed, according to an EPA discussion paper regarding proposed changes to regulations now being considered. They include “compliance assurance” from growers and annual reporting.

The EPA says changes are needed to bring the growth of resistant insect pests under control; otherwise, “if resistance continue to proliferate, Bt corn and cotton could be lost to farmers as tools to address pest problems.”

Meanwhile, similar concerns have been raised in Canada, since the first resistance to Bt corn, involving a European corn borer infestation was confirmed in Nova Scotia last year. “This is the first report in the world of the European corn borer (ECB) developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait used to confer insect resistance. It is also the first report in Canada of any insect pest developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait. The development of resistance in other insect pests targeted by Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) traits in corn has been observed in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil,” the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) reported in June, 2019.

“This is an important reminder that nature can adapt to and overcome genetically engineered traits,” said CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt.

That’s putting it mildly. Say what you want about the ethics of modern genetic engineering, or modification, but from my point of view, the real tragedy here is the loss of Bt as a bona fide, organic control of the damage European corn borer, corn earworm and corn rootworm can cause.

Bacillus Thuringiensis occurs naturally in soil. It poses no risk for human consumption. It has been used by market-garden farmers and gardeners for many years. I have used a liquid concentrate sold under the name BTK for 30 years with excellent results. I have found it is indispensable, to avoid damage rendering the corn unsaleable and repugnant. But I try in my modest way to take a responsible, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. That always involves checking for corn borer when the corn plants are about half a metre high, and then unwinding the whorl of a few and carefully looking for the tiny larvae. If none, I don’t spray. With corn earworm, wait until the silk has begun to form before spraying. Wait another two weeks before spraying again. That’s usually enough.

As for the massive, widespread use of Bt GMO corn, and the subsequent appearance of resistant bugs, it should have been obvious what was going to happen when it was approved.

Growing your own food: gardening and weather, the first learning experience

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I’m Canadian, eh. And a modest market gardener, living and working in a sparsely populated rural area. So, I guess I’m more culturally obsessed with the weather than a lot of people in Canada who now mostly live in big cities. It wasn’t always so; but more about that later.

I have been reminded yet again that keeping tabs on the now-frequent wanderings of the Jet Stream is key to understanding Canadian weather; and in particular, here on the Saugeen/Bruce Peninsula, and elsewhere in southern Ontario. This comes in the midst of winter’s virtual return, several days of freezing cold weather, a month into the spring season of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s supposed to be a lot warmer than this. Gardeners are supposed to be busy planting hardy, early crops like snow peas, even potatoes by now; and rejoicing that a healthy-looking crop of new garlic has emerged, not worrying about even it, surprisingly tough as it is, being damaged by one hard frost after another. Continue reading

My “cool” garden, Toronto Island flooding, and “the old fogy days.”

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My “cool” garden, with lettuce thriving and in need of picking and thinning

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I might say this is, therefore, a 2,000-word update on the progress of my “cool” garden. But I better make allowances for the fact they’re two views from different angles of essentially the same picture and call it 1,000 words. Nothing but “real” news here, by golly. Continue reading

Still waiting for summer

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My “cool” garden. Not doing too bad. Those are potato plants in the foreground, mulched with straw to deter potato beetles, and add organic matter to the soil.

My “cool” garden is doing okay despite the unusually cool, wet weather. After all, up to a point that’s what early-season crops like peas, potatoes, onions, kale, and lettuce like – up to a point. But they won’t thrive either without their good, old-fashioned share of sunny days and warm weather.

I’ve lived in southern Ontario for a good many years (indeed, I’ve got another birthday coming, and that will make me of an age that surprises even me) but I’ve never seen anything like this: Continue reading

Surrounded by wildlife in Hope Ness

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white-tailed deer have been feasting on my sweet peas

I noted with more than passing interest the news that black bear have been making appearances and causing problems in the Shallow Lake area, brazenly killing and eating chickens close to homes, and breaking into wooden garbage containers at Sauble Beach.

There certainly are black bear up here in heavily-wooded Hope Ness, on the Georgian Bay side of the Bruce Peninsula, where I live. I saw a big one from a safe distance crossing the Hope Ness Road out by Bruce County Road 9 a week or two ago just after setting out for a trip to Owen Sound. Most of my  neighbours live out there, compared to where I am at the end of Cathedral Drive. That’s a “No Exit” road that leads to the Hope Bay Forest and a fairly popular section of The Bruce Trail through the mature hardwoods to a wonderful lookout from the Niagara Escarpment cliffs above Hope Bay. Continue reading

On weeding the garden, here and there

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The well-tended potato plants are starting to bloom north of the border

There’s a lot to be said for growing a garden, especially one as big as mine here at Cathedral Drive Farm in Hope Ness, on the Bruce Peninsula, in Ontario, Canada. It’s like ballet, or any other creative discipline that requires your absolute devotion and attention for hours a day, every day. You can get lost in it, but not aimless. It can be an escape for a while from the world of cares and woe and discouraging news about how the future is likely to unfold; and these days it’s not very good at all.

And, yes, I am referring to the infernal T-word. Continue reading

Seeds of hope, rural roots

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Irish Cobbler potato plants looking good, June 7

Let’s look on the bright side again.

Let’s plant some seeds of hope.

Let’s do what we can, where we can, while we can.

Here at Cathedral Drive Farm, surrounded by Hope in reality and spirit, the garden is starting to look good. I can look out my second-floor office window and see multiple rows of sweet corn that a week ago emerged, including quite a bit of seed left over from last season. Continue reading

Keep going

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The “new garden” at Cathedral Drive Farm, Hope Ness

Sometimes, in the absence of joy that comes from being in love, or otherwise feeling down for whatever reason, you just have to keep going.

Yes, there’s something to be said for simple endurance and survival, for just putting one foot in front of the other, for the knowing from experience that your life will get better, possibly in the very next moment.

Continue reading