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The Bugs That Ate Monsanto
The Bugs That Ate Monsanto
By Tom Laskawy, Grist
14 December 11
Now that 94 percent of the soy and 70 percent of the corn grown in the
U.S. are genetically modified, Monsanto - one of the companies that
dominates the GMO seed market - might look to some like it's winning.
But if we look a little closer, I'd say they're holding on by a
Their current success is due in large part to brilliant marketing. The
company's approach was both compelling - their products were sold as
the key to making large-scale farming far simpler and more predictable
- and aggressive: Monsanto made it virtually impossible for most
farmers to find conventional seeds for sale in most parts of the
Despite promises of improved productivity, enhanced nutritional
content, or extreme weather tolerance - none of which has ever come to
market - Monsanto has only ever produced seeds with two genetically
modified traits: either herbicide tolerance or pesticide production.
And even those traits never lived up to the marketing hype.
But it now appears that the core traits themselves are failing. Over
the last several years, so-called "superweeds" have grown resistant to
the herbicide RoundUp, the companion product that's made Monsanto's
herbicide-tolerant (aka RoundUp-Ready) corn, soy, and alfalfa so
popular. Those crops were supposed to be the only plants that could
withstand being sprayed by the chemical. Oops.
The superweed problem is so bad that farmers in some parts of the
country are abandoning thousands of acres because the weeds are so out
of control, or dousing the crops with ever more toxic (and expensive)
combinations of other herbicides. Thankfully, it's an issue that's
getting more and more media attention.
And now Monsanto's other flagship product line, the
pesticide-producing "Bt crops," named for the pesticide they are
genetically modified to emit, is in trouble.
Scientists have warned that insects would become resistant from the
overuse of Bt crops, but Monsanto poo-pooed it. Even so, when the EPA
first considered Bt crops for approval, agency scientists wanted a
50-percent buffer to prevent resistance (only half the acreage in any
given field could be planted with Bt crops). Of course, if that demand
stood, there is no way that Monsanto would ever have achieved their
current market dominance.
Monsanto was so convinced (publicly at least) of their products'
immunity from, well, an immunity problem, that they pushed back hard
and got the buffer zone reduced to 20 percent. The idea with a larger
buffer was that any resistant bugs that arose would breed with the
bugs feeding on the non-Bt crops nearby, and ecological balance would
be preserved. So, by requiring a small buffer, EPA higher-ups were
echoing Monsanto's party line: Resistance isn't a risk.
Sadly, even that 20-percent rule has been ignored by many farmers,
with no fear of retribution from Monsanto for violating safety
protocols, of course. After all, the smaller the buffer, the more of
their profit-earning GMO seeds farmers were planting.
Yet it's possible that the EPA is starting to push back against
Monsanto's handling of its Bt crops a little. In a new report [PDF] -
unpublicized and buried deep in a government website - and analyzed in
detail over at Mother Jones, the EPA confirms many anti-GMO activists'
deepest fears. The report "officially" found evidence that corn
rootworms, a major pest for corngrowers, have grown resistant to Bt in
several states; even worse, that resistance is strong enough that EPA
scientists are insisting the company implement a "remedial action
plan." In addition, the report criticizes Monsanto for missing the
rise of the rootworm resistance problem via its faulty monitoring
However, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones picks out the report's key eyebrow-raiser:
Perhaps most devastatingly of all, EPA reveals that Monsanto has been
receiving reports of possible resistance since 2004 - the year after
the product's release - when it got 21 such complaints nationwide. The
number of reports ballooned to 94 in 2006 and has been hovering at
around 100 per year since. And guess what? "Monsanto reported that
none of their follow-up investigations resulted ... in finding
resistant populations [of rootworms]."
Naturally, Monsanto continues to deny the problem. In a recent blog
post on its website responding to the EPA report, Monsanto again
rewrote reality, claiming: "Scientific confirmation of corn rootworm
resistance ... has not been demonstrated."
Of course, this peer-reviewed study, which provided just such
confirmation, doesn't count because ... because Monsanto said so. So
Monsanto's denial of reality in favor of its bottom line, while a
practice now commonplace in corporate America, will have repercussions
beyond industrial agriculture. Bt is also a key pesticide for organic
agriculture; if resistance spreads, it's possible that Bt will lose
its effectiveness for organic farmers as well. We're still far from
Interestingly, this story has mainly been picked up by the business
press concerned with the effect of this latest development on
Monsanto's stock price. Perhaps we should take the warning of stock
traders as a good indicator that Monsanto may really be in trouble.
There is an obvious immediate solution here: Require farmers to plant
larger buffers. It's not at all clear that the EPA is prepared to go
beyond posting a critical report on an obscure government website -
but if they were, it would have the immediate effect of reducing the
amount of Bt corn and soy farmers are growing. And that wouldn't just
be good for the bugs.
A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a
founder and Executive Director of the Food & Environment Reporting
Network and a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and
agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics
writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area,
Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food
politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In
addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American
Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on
record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him