A growing number of rootworms are now able to devour genetically modified corn specifically designed by Monsanto to kill those same pests. A new study shows that while the biotech giant may triumph in Congress, it will never be able to outsmart nature.
Western corn rootworms have been able to harmlessly consume the genetically modified maize, a research paper published in the latest issue of the journal GM Crops & Food reveals. A 2010 sample of the rootworm population had an elevenfold survival rate on the genetically modified corn compared to a control population. That’s eight times more than the year before, when the resistant population was first identified.
Experts are also noting that this year’s resistant rootworm populations are maturing earlier than expected. In fact, the time the bug’s larvae hatched was the earliest in decades.
“The Western corn rootworm ‘season’ is underway at a pace earlier than I have experienced since I began studying this versatile insect as a graduate student in the late 1970s,” entomologist Mike Gray wrote in The Bulletin, a periodical issued by the University of Chicago’s Department of Crop Studies.
Studies in other states have also revealed that the rootworm population is becoming increasingly resistant to genetically modified corn. Last year, Iowa State University researcher Aaron Gassmann noted that a number of farmers reported discovering, much to their dismay, that a large number of rootworms survived after the consumption of their GM crops. Gassmann branded these pests “superbugs.”
Farmers and food companies have increasingly been dependent on GM crops, and many have abandoned crop rotation, a practice that has been used to stave off pest infestations for centuries. Some have even gone as far as to ignore federal regulation, which require the GM corn plantations be accompanied by a small “refuge” of non-GM maize.
The recent findings have potentially devastating ramifications for both farmers and consumers. Genetic maize plantation would easily come under attack from the swelling number of “superbugs,” resulting in dwindling harvest numbers for farmers. Ultimately, consumers will pay the price not only for corn, an essential product whose derivatives are used in a plethora of products ranging from yogurts to baby powder, but for other crops sold in the market. Rising corn prices would mean that more farmers would plant corn, despite the risks, and the yield for other crops would drop. That would drive prices for virtually all food items up, hitting hard on a population already smitten by ongoing economic difficulties.
Monsanto launched its anti-rootworm GM corm in 2003. The Cry3Bb1 protein, derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.) bacterium, was inserted into the corn’s genetic code. The embedded protein was supposed to be fatal to all rootworms.
The recent findings came days after Monsanto, along with other biotech companies, got a major boost from a congressional panel, which okayed the manufacture of GM crops despite pending legal challenges. Many of the lawsuits that Monsanto faces include assessments that its crops are unsafe for human consumption and affect the health of unborn children.
Monsanto has also been an active plaintiff itself. Its primary targets include entities that seek to label GM foods, and small farmers, whom the biotech behemoth accuses of using genetically modified crops patented by Monsanto.
On November 28, 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a memo which identified the failure of Monsanto’s Bt corn to prevent “unexpected” rootworm damage to the corn crop. The EPA stated that at least four states, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska, are seeing “severe efficacy issues” for Monsanto’s Bt corn. The agency also noted problem areas in four additional states, Colorado, South Dakota, Minnesota, and western Wisconsin, and asked that they be monitored in the future.
Shaking its regulatory finger at Monsanto, the EPA said in no uncertain terms that the company’s resistance monitoring is “inadequate and likely to miss early resistance events.”
“It’s one of those delectable reports written not by political appointees or higher-ups, but rather by staff scientists reporting what they see,” commented Tom Philpott, the food and agricultural blogger at MotherJones. Monsanto, for its part, is sticking to its PR talking points and denying the existence of a problem. Although the company reportedly is taking the EPA’s report seriously, “Monsanto continues to believe there’s no scientific confirmation of resistance to its Bt corn,” a company spokesperson told Bloomberg news. This mirrors the sentiments the company expressed in September, a month after the Iowa State University published a study showing resistance by rootworm after ingesting the company’s Bt corn. “Our Cry3Bb1 protein is effective, and we don’t have any demonstrated field resistance,” assured a company representative in September.
Despite the company’s assurances, the EPA report paints a different picture.
In its November report, the EPA identified that resistance to Monsanto’s insecticidal poison producing corn has been reported as early as 2004 — a mere year after the product was released. And while the number of resistance reports kept coming in, “Monsanto reported [to the EPA] that none of [the company's] follow-up investigations resulted … in finding resistant populations [of rootworms].”
In case you are wondering, part of the condition for registration of Monsanto’s corn in 2003 was a requirement that Monsanto monitor the performance of its product and report to the EPA data collected from farmers and the company’s investigations. During the registration of Monsanto’s corn, there was also a debate as to the size of the buffer zone of non-GMO corn that farmers should be required to set aside nearby when planting Bt corn to avoid resistance.
In deciding on the size of the buffer zone, the EPA approved Monsanto’s recommendation of a 20% buffer zone and ignored the recommendation of its scientific advisory panel (SAP), which recommended a 50% buffer zone. In discussing the reasons for EPA’s decision, a 2003 Nature article reported that:
the EPA decided to go with a 20% refuge [instead of SAP's recommended 50%] because they received additional data from Monsanto that showed it would be acceptable using conservative assumptions. The EPA calculated that even if 100% of crops were transgenic, resistance wouldn’t occur for 7-15 years.
But resistance occurred as as soon as 2004.