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Laskawy begins: "Now that 94 percent of the soy and 70 percent of the corn grown in the US 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 thread."

Corn root worms and beetles have long been the major economic pests of corn in the United States. (photo: Cirrusimage)
Corn root worms and beetles have long been the major economic pests of corn in the United States. (photo: Cirrusimage)



The Bugs That Ate Monsanto

By Tom Laskawy, Grist

14 December 11

 

ow 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 thread.

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 country.

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 system.

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 there.

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 that, thankfully.

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 on Twitter.

 

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+24 # gentle 2011-12-14 12:57
The couple were out of town at the time of the accident, returned Tuesday afternoon to the muddy, 160-acre farm field near Tampico, Ill.
They said they were saddened by the news of the deaths and for the girls' families.
Jade Garza, 14, and Hannah Kendall, 14, both of Sterling, were working for Monsanto Corp. when, the company says, they and two other detasselers were electrically shocked by a center pivot irrigation system. The four were taken to CGH Medical Center in Sterling, where Jade and Hannah were pronounced dead. Another victim remained at CGH for observation while the fourth was airlifted to OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford and was listed in critical condition Tuesday.
The Whiteside County Sheriff's Office said several others felt the shock and were treated on the scene.
The farm is one of several owned by the Matthews couple, who live in Walnut. They contract with Monsanto for the planting and harvesting of their corn crop, saying the company educates its workers on the possible dangers of irrigation systems.

Read more: http://www.qctimes.com/news/local/whiteside-detasseling-deaths-raise-questions/article_c4afb46c-b6ea-11e0-a516-001cc4c03286.html#ixzz1fVdapWTM
 
 
+26 # mizlee 2011-12-14 17:11
And again, it is the victim's fault.
 
 
+22 # gentle 2011-12-14 18:49
Waiting on OSHA report, you have to remember a farm becomes a "workplace" when they send in groups of kids. That is why when representatives attack OSHA, they are attacking your loved ones.
 
 
+1 # jwb110 2011-12-15 10:23
Quoting gentle:
The couple were out of town at the time of the accident, returned Tuesday afternoon to the muddy, 160-acre farm field near Tampico, Ill.
They said they were saddened by the news of the deaths and for the girls' families.
Jade Garza, 14, and Hannah Kendall, 14, both of Sterling, were working for Monsanto Corp. when, the company says, they and two other detasselers were electrically shocked by a center pivot irrigation system. The four were taken to CGH Medical Center in Sterling, where Jade and Hannah were pronounced dead. Another victim remained at CGH for observation while the fourth was airlifted to OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford and was listed in critical condition Tuesday.
The Whiteside County Sheriff's Office said several others felt the shock and were treated on the scene.
The farm is one of several owned by the Matthews couple, who live in Walnut. They contract with Monsanto for the planting and harvesting of their corn crop, saying the company educates its workers on the possible dangers of irrigation systems.

Read more: http://www.qctimes.com/news/local/whiteside-detasseling-deaths-raise-questions/article_c4afb46c-b6ea-11e0-a516-001cc4c03286.html#ixzz1fVdapWTM


I am not clear on why the corn needs to be detassled?
 
 
+9 # Texas Aggie 2011-12-15 11:50
When you are trying to produce a hybrid, you need the pollen (on the tassles) from one strain of corn to fertilize the silk on the ears of a different strain. You detassle the second strain so that it's pollen doesn't self pollenate. The two strains are planted in alternate rows. That way the seeds on the second strain will grow into the hybrid strain. This has been going on since the 1940's or before.
 
 
+62 # racetoinfinity 2011-12-14 16:04
Another example of poorly regulated "free" market corporate capitalism screwing up our food supply, our health, the health of our environment,of our planet and its people, since the only goal they have is monetary profit. Anyone who thinks Ron Paul is a good guy because of his stand against The Fed, anti-Constituti onal security state provisions, and foreign wars and the war industry (three good stands) should remember that he wants no EPA or very little regulation at all.
 
 
+78 # lisamoskow 2011-12-14 16:14
This article is not strong enough in just recommending "buffer zones" for Monsanto crops. They should be declared illegal.
The proof is in India and in Haiti whose
farmers burnt the Monsanto seeds. We do not
need to ingest pesticides with our "food".
 
 
+28 # Vegan_Girl 2011-12-15 04:30
The farmers there are smarter. I think they had other reasons to burn those seeds though: from those seeds, plants go that are sterile: farmers would have to purchase seeds from Monsanto every single year.
 
 
+59 # bub 2011-12-14 16:27
Hey Monsanto , Don't mess with Mother Nature ! You can't own her , and She will make you pay for even trying to ! Go SuperWeeds ! .... The Big Chemical/Big Pharma/Big Oil crowd is destroying this planet in pursuit of "Profit" . Karma may or may not be "instant" , But it will get you !
 
 
+29 # Tippitc 2011-12-14 17:47
Unfortunately, it will get us also.
 
 
+17 # sean1303 2011-12-15 00:21
What you are missing, and the article doesn't touch on, is that these super weeds and super bugs bred by Monsanto as well as dairy farmers that routinely use antibiotics will also effect the more responsible farmers growing organically or non-GMO crops.
 
 
+70 # Barkingcarpet 2011-12-14 16:42
Monsanto IS evil! As is an inept government which is beholden to and caters to corporate interests over long term health, security, or real justice.
 
 
+47 # Ken Hall 2011-12-14 19:52
The gov't isn't inept, it has been destroyed by conservative ideology. It was wrenched from control of We The People and given as a service arm to corporate interests. Politicians did exactly what they were paid to do, starting with Ronny "gov't is the problem" Reagan, in the name of "smaller gov't" they emasculated regulatory agencies and allowed corporations to police themselves, knocked down sensible oversight and allowed financial interests to run wild. The results of those policies are well-known by now. When I was younger the industrial pesticide DDT was banned from use by the US gov't. Does anyone think that could happen now? Gov't is not by nature evil, gov't "Of, For, and By The People" should be devoutly wished for, but it will take an aware, informed, and alert electorate, and many electoral cycles, to make it a reality.
 
 
+35 # Bourbaki 2011-12-14 16:59
Damn their transgressions, it is of profits first!

This is Amerikkka!
 
 
+69 # Tippitc 2011-12-14 17:12
Monsanto is the 'poster child' for corporations in this country - they can lie and deny so well, they probably have convinced themselves of how benign their products are!! Monsanto will feed the world according to their propaganda and they have let loose a monster that will be impossible to stop!! Pollen from a GMO crop does not stop at the edge of a field or a fence line.

Once again our bought and paid for government has let this happen. EPA - shame on you!!!!
 
 
+64 # DLT888 2011-12-14 17:21
Monsanto has created a disaster. You cannot think you can outwit Mother Nature and not suffer the consequences. But we all will and are suffering from Monsanto's greed.
 
 
+61 # Mouna 2011-12-14 17:26
The absolute hubris of Monsanto thinking that "science can improve on Nature" without thorough testing over a long period of time, not caring about anything but "making a killing" (sic) for their own benefit, is no different from the oil companies, the nuclear industry, and all the other "better than God" ideas that make the population the "lab rats" for their experiments while they rake in the do-re-me.

Their well-publicized bullying tactics makes me feel like eating their products could make me just as "sick" as those
natural plants who are being overtaken by super bugs and
monster weeds. I wonder how many neurological diseases,
such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, MS, and others are a result
of eating, drinking, or breathing these unnatural chemicals
and food foolings?

I wonder. When when when will we ever learn to respect the
Nature of Life?
 
 
+22 # KittatinyHawk 2011-12-14 20:32
I also believe that the autism is part of this Country's stupidity in food marketing.

Look at our animal food, imported and not. Our Fruit Juices not imported. Animals are not healthy on farms and will get worse...McD;s will sell it anyway.

We can chose what to eat. Local food from our local farmers, ask them what they use. Eat Organic, cost a bit more but rewards are healthy life. Other Countries including So America refuse to grow these poisons...so now let's get America Aware.

Thanks RSN I will pass this on to Health Stores. More Awareness means more Healthy Americans to fight back
 
 
+11 # Vegan_Girl 2011-12-15 04:28
First of all, not a second too soon. Monsanto is truly a destructive force and it can not fail soon enough.

Second, and this is my worry. Since when is inferior product a problem for a powerful company in crony-capitalis m?
 
 
+14 # mwd870 2011-12-15 06:34
EPA, show some integrity and scrap this useless program. At the very least stop all government subsidies to Monsanto and farmers who use their products. Monsanto is not too big to fail, or shouldn't be. Is anything sane in this country any more?
 
 
+8 # mgreen 2011-12-15 08:04
So many people are sick and getting sicker. It looks like gluten intolerance but I believe it is this GMO grain. Many mentally and physically ill people feel a lot better when they stop wheat, oats, rye, barley, dairy. If they don't there is depression, anxiety, whole body pain, "fibromyalgia," headaches/migra ines, peripheral neuropathy. These grains are causing us to dump our minerals. There is science to explain the illnesses due to grains, but big pharma is having a hayday selling more and more prescriptions. Watch the food and stop the drugs. Isn't Monsanto drugging too?!!!!
 
 
+4 # bugbuster 2011-12-15 09:33
What are these scientists thinking? Do they really imagine that they can outwit Mother Nature, who has been at this game for billions of years? It beggars belief to consider that these scientists actually went to class when they were supposed to be learning about evolution and how it works. Or, if this is your cup of tea, is it that they consider themselves more intelligent than the Intelligent Designer Herself?
 
 
+4 # Texas Aggie 2011-12-15 11:54
Speaking about beggaring belief, what is the difference, evolutionarily speaking, between growing plants with incorporated Bt and spraying Bt on plants without incorporated Bt? Do you really think that somehow GM plants with Bt are different from plants that are sprayed with the stuff or with some other insecticide? And if you want to know what the scientists were thinking, you obviously missed the part about the recommendations for buffer zones.
 
 
+2 # Texas Aggie 2011-12-15 11:59
Critical thinking has died in this country. As Exhibit A I give you the commenters who say that because Monsanto has a rotten business model and also uses GM techniques, therefore GM must be at fault.

There are so many commenters here who use exactly the same thought processes that the Tea Baggers use. The comment trying to blame GM for imaginary diseases reminds me of the interview that Canton, who is the Florida Family Association, gave where he said the problem with the Moslem reality show is that it didn't support his beliefs.

Being an airhead isn't restricted to the regressives.
 
 
+11 # BLBreck 2011-12-15 14:12
Well, duh. Weeds and insects having a very short life time adapt quickly to the pesticides they're doused with (unlike us!) I'm not a scientist and even I know that! The reason Monsanto didn't "know" that is that they chose to ignore it in order to push their products on the world and make a profit. The FDA has been rendered pretty much useless because so much of their funding has been stolen (to help pay for some illegal wars?) so they don't have the revenue to do their own testing. This plays into the hands of the corporations nicely because they are quite happy to "test" their own products and give them a big smiley face. Monsanto is killing our soil by draining it of nutrients and with mono-crop practice, the poisons leech into our waterways, and are killing us. No wonder so many people struggle with obesity when they are forced to eat empty calories even when they think they are eating right.

The article doesn't even mention the over 200,000 farmers in India (I believe there is a law suit pending) that committed suicide after massive GMO crop failure and massive debt because they have to buy new seed every year. Monsanto's business practice is beyond aggressive it is criminal!
 
 
+2 # Larkrise 2011-12-18 00:18
Progressives were opposed to Vilsack, but birds of a feather flock together, and Obama appointed him anyway. Vilsack has always been a big supporter of GMO trash. It will all come home to roost, of course, as more and more serious problems arise. In the meantime, Obama is counting his campaign donations from Big Chem, Big Factory Ag, and Big everything. It is ALL he cares about. No relevant agencies will do much, other than a bit of half-hearted smoke and mirrors, until a disaster occurs. Even then, given the current state of corruption in our government on both sides of the aisle, dont look for definitive action against the Monsantos of this world. Most people are not aware of GMO crops, and would be apathetic, if they did know about them. It is one of those sleeper issues that is going to have a terrible impact in the near future, along with global warming.
 

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