One thing about Mother Nature, unlike man-made machines or objects – she never stops being created. Nature is always changing, evolving, adapting to conditions, a fact that can be frustrating to scientists and engineers who have been trained to think in terms of things staying put once they are built. It can seem at times, to be like one of those trick birthday candles, that lights itself again after being blown out.
This seems to be the case with Monsanto’s embattled Bt corn, with the western corn rootworm playing the role of the trick birthday candle. Research entomologist Aaron Gassmann at Iowa State University released a study last month that showed that the little critter was ingesting the Cry3Bb1 toxin that the plant was engineered to produce and then merrily going about its business of destroying the plants. This appears to be the first field report of resistance to the toxin. Other researchers, such as Mike Gray, an entomologist with the University of Illinois who is studying rootworm damage in northwestern Illinois fields, do not think it will be the last. “These Bt hybrids are grown very widely. I think there is the potential for more problems to surface.”
Monsanto claims that this is not a case of “resistance,” but did not offer an alternative explanation other than to say that it was confined to as little as 10,000 acres in certain “hot spots.”
Dusty Post, who heads Monsanto’s corn technology efforts claimed that, “Our Cry3Bb1 protein is effective, and we don’t have any demonstrated field resistance. We do have some performance inquiries in those counties where there’s a high level of insect pressure, but it’s no greater now than it’s been.” The company maintains that the pesticidal protein is working, “on more than 99% of the acres planted with this technology.”
Bt corn was first introduced in the 1990′s to combat the European corn borer. When the corn rootworm variety came out in 2003, it was widely embraced by farmers who were spending a billion dollars every year fighting the pest with insecticide.
Gassmann acknowledged that these are isolated cases, but insisted that this was, “an early warning that management practices need to change.”
The EPA approved the corn with the stipulation that farmers plant at least 20% “refuge corn,” meaning non-Bt corn, in an effort to dilute the insect population and reduce the likelihood of resistant bugs emerging. Scientists on the EPA’s advisory panel had asked for a minimum of 50% refuge corn, but they were overruled under heavy pressure from the manufacturer. Meanwhile, lax monitoring has fueled concerns that in many cases, not even 20% non-Bt corn was planted since it is easier for a farmer to plant and maintain a crop that does not require pesticide.
Another recommendation was that the crop be rotated regularly, but this this has also been ignored in many cases as farmers believe that these crops reduce the need to do so. As Scott Kilman says in the Wall Street Journal, “These insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops make farming so much easier that many growers rely heavily on the technology, violating a basic tenet of pest management, which warns that using one method year after year gives more opportunity for pests to adapt.”
Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s possible to outsmart Mother Nature in the long run. We can work with her or we can work against her. And while working with her seems generally to be more viable, working against her, at least in some cases, seems to be more profitable.
Monsanto generated $4.26 billion from corn seed and biotechnology traits, about 40% of its overall sales last year.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.