Tuesday, 13 September 2011

More Monsanto Questions

There are a number of Greek myths about the hubris of humans that end badly. Are we seeing a modern tale with the scientists and investors who have so much faith  in their ability to harness and control  the very  building blocks of nature? It's looking more and more like it.

For those not familiar with the publication Mother Jones it may seem/sound a little crunchy granola, certainly left-wing.  I've found that it has some excellent writers who take their beats seriously and don't assume they're just preaching to the choir, they really try to convince. One such writer is Tom Philpott who writes a lot about farm and food issues.  I've written a fair bit about what are being called "superweeds" caused by the overuse of glyphosphate (here and elsewhere: http://foodmatters-petrie.blogspot.com/2011/03/changes-coming-says-round-up-maker.html ). Philpott has written convincingly that BT products (corn and cotton that are supposed to kill the bugs that attack them) are going through the same resistance problems. All of this is totally predictable given the way insects and plants have adapted to pesticides for decades. I\ll let Philpott pick up the story. I'll only add that glyphospate (round-up) and BT (bacillus thurengiensis) have been some of the safest products (BT used by organic farmers) available and to see them lost so Monsanto et al can come to the rescue makes me really mad.


Attack of the Monsanto Superinsects
New, from the company that has already brought you superweeds…

By Tom Philpott | Tue Aug. 30, 2011 3:04 AM PDT

Over the past decade and a half, as Monsanto built up its globe-spanning, multi-billion-dollar genetically modified seed empire, it made two major pitches to farmers.

The first involved weeds. Leave the weed management to us, Monsanto insisted. We've engineered plants that can survive our very own herbicide. Just pay up for our patented, premium-priced seeds, spray your fields with our Roundup herbicide whenever the fancy strikes, and—voilĂ !—no more weeds.

The second involved crop-eating insects. We've isolated the toxic gene of a commonly used bacterial pesticide called Bt, Monsanto announced, and spliced it directly into crops. Along with corn and soy, you will literally be growing the pesticide that protects them. Plant our seeds, and watch your crops thrive while their pests shrivel and die.

Monsanto focused its technology on three widely planted, highly subsidized crops: corn, soy, and cotton. Large-scale farmers of these commodities, always operating on razor-thin profit margins, lunged at the chance to streamline their operations by essentially outsourcing their pest management to Monsanto. And so Monsanto's high-tech crops essentially took over the corn/soy- and cotton-growing regions of the country.

But now the pitches are wearing thin. Dumping a single herbicide onto millions of acres of farmland has, predictably enough, given rise to weeds resistant to that herbicide. Such "superweeds" are now galloping through cotton and corn country [1], forcing farmers to resort to highly toxic herbicide cocktails and even hand-weeding. More than 11 million acres are infested with Roundup-resistant weeds, up from 2.4 million acres in 2007, reckons [2] Penn State University weed expert David Mortensen.

And now insects are developing resistance to Monsanto's insecticide-infused crops, reports [3] the Wall Street Journal. Fields planted in Monsanto's Bt corn in some areas of the Midwest are showing damage from the corn rootworm—the very species targeted by Monsanto's engineered trait. An Iowa State University scientist has conclusively identified Bt-resistant root worms in four Iowa fields, the Journal reports.

The findings are not likely isolated to those fields—just like spotting a cockroach on your kitchen floor probably signals an infestation, not that a lone cockroach randomly stumbled in for a visit. Sure enough, farmers in Illinois are also seeing severe rootworm damage in fields planted in Monsanto's Bt corn. And it's not just in the United States: In 2010, Monsanto itself acknowledged [4]that in industrial-agriculture regions of India, where Monsanto's Bt cotton is a dominant crop, a cotton-attacking pest called the bollworm had developed resistance.

Just as Roundup-resistant superweeds rapidly bloomed into a major problem after first appearing in the mid-2000s, Bt-resistant superinsects may be just getting started. Colleen Scherer, managing editor of the industrial-ag trade magazine Ag Professional, put it like this: "There is no 'putting the genie back in the bottle,' and resistance in these areas is a problem that won't go away."

So what does all of this mean for Monsanto? If its main attraction for farmers—the promise of easy pest management—is turning to dust in a quite public way, should we expect the company be on the verge of getting crushed under the weight of its failures?

To get a glimpse of how the publicly traded company is faring, I looked at how its stock has been performing over the past year, compared to the broader stock market. Early Monday afternoon, Monsanto's shares were trading at about $71 [5]—a more than 25 percent gain over the past 12 months. Over the same period, the S&P 500—a broad gauge of US stocks—is up just over 10 percent. That means investors have high hopes for Monsanto going forward, despite the high-profile failures. Like weeds and bugs in farm fields, Monsanto shares have developed resistance to toxic tidings.

What gives? The Wall Street Journal article provides a clue:

    The [Bt-resistance] finding adds fuel to the race among crop biotechnology rivals to locate the next generation of genes that can protect plants from insects. Scientists at Monsanto and Syngenta [6] AG of Basel, Switzerland, are already researching how to use a medical breakthrough called RNA interference to, among other things, make crops deadly for insects to eat. If this works, a bug munching on such a plant could ingest genetic code that turns off one of its essential genes.

In other words, Monsanto claims it has the answer to the trouble it's cooking up on corn, soy, and cotton fields: more patent-protected GM technology. It has managed to shove US farmers on a kind of accelerating treadmill: the need to apply ever more, and ever more novel, high-tech responses to keep up with ever-evolving pests. And while farmers run ever faster to stay in place, Monsanto just keeps coming up with highly profitable "solutions" to the problems it has generated.

Investors have embraced Monsanto's pitch. Large-scale farmers, battered and desperate for relief, probably will too. But the broader citizenry, in the form of the regulatory agencies that ostensibly guard the public interest [7], should start asking hard questions.


Monsanto Denies Superinsect Science
As far back as 2002, scientists have been warning that bugs would develop resistance to Monsanto's Bt corn.

By Tom Philpott | Thu Sep. 8, 2011 3:25 PM PDT

As the summer growing season draws to a close, 2011 is emerging as the year of the superinsect—the year pests officially developed resistance to Monsanto's genetically engineered (ostensibly) bug-killing corn [1].

While the revelation has given rise to alarming headlines, neither Monsanto nor the EPA, which regulates pesticides and pesticide-infused crops, can credibly claim surprise. Scientists have been warning that the EPA's rules for planting the crop were too lax to prevent resistance since before the agency approved the crop in 2003. And in 2008, research funded by Monsanto itself showed that resistance was an obvious danger.

And now those unheeded warnings are proving prescient. In late July, as I reported recently, scientists in Iowa documented the existence of corn rootworms [2] (a ravenous pest that attacks the roots of corn plants) that can happily devour corn plants that were genetically tweaked specifically to kill them. Monsanto's corn, engineered to express a toxic gene from a bacterial insecticide called Bt, now accounts for 65 percent of the corn planted in the US [3].

The superinsect scourge has also arisen in Illinois and Minnesota. "Monsanto Co. (MON)’s insect-killing corn is toppling over in northwestern Illinois fields, a sign that rootworms outside of Iowa may have developed resistance to the genetically modified crop," reports Bloomberg [4]. In southern Minnesota, adds Minnesota Public Radio [5], an entomologist has found corn rootworms thriving, Bt corn plants drooping, in fields.

Monsanto, for its part, is reacting to the news with a hearty "move along—nothing to see here!" "Our [Bt corn] is effective," Monsanto scientist Dusty Post insisted in an interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. [6] "We don't have any demonstrated field resistance," he added, pretending away the Iowa study, to speak nothing those corn fields that are "toppling over" in Illinois and and Minnesota.

But the company's denials ring hollow for another reason, too. Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, alerted me to this 2008 study [2], conducted by University of Missouri researchers and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this precise question of Bt corn and rootworms.

The first thing to notice about the study is that Monsanto is listed in the acknowledgements as one of the "supporters." So this is Monsanto-funded research, meaning that he company would be hard-pressed to deny knowledge of it.

The researchers found that within three generations, rootworms munching Monsanto's Bt corn survived at the same rate as rootworms munching pesticide-free corn—meaning that complete resistance had been achieved. Takeaway message: rootworms are capable of evolving resistance to Monsanto's corn in "rapid" fashion.

But such concerns were nothing new by 2008. From the early days of Bt-based GMOs in the '90s, everyone—Monsanto, the EPA, independent scientists—agreed that farmers would have to plant a portion of their fields in non-Bt corn to control resistance. The idea was that, as bugs in the Bt portion of the field began to develop resistance, they would mate with non-resistant bugs from the so-called "refuge" patch, and the resistant trait would be kept recessive within the larger bug population and thus under control.

The contentious point involved how large these refuge patches would have to be. Monsanto insisted that 20 percent was adequate—that farmers could plant 80 percent of their corn crop with Bt seeds, and 20 percent in non-Bt seeds, and in so doing, avoid resistance.

But the majority of a panel of scientists convened by the EPA countered that the refuge requirement should be 50 percent—which would have, of course, eaten into Monsanto's profits by limiting its market. The reason for the scientists' concern, Freese explained, was that the corn plants express the Bt protein toxic to root worms at a low dose, meaning that a large portion of the rootworms survive contact with the plants, leaving them to pass on resistance to the next generation. With just 20 percent of fields planted in non-Bt crops, the scientists warned, resistant rootworms would eventually swamp non-resistant ones, and we'd have corn fields toppling over in the Midwest.

The minutes [7] (PDF) of the committee's Nov. 6, 2002, meeting on the topic documents their concerns. The majority of the committee's members, the minutes state, "concluded that there was no practical or scientific justification for establishing a precedent for a 20 percent refuge at this time."

I asked Freese why Monsanto didn't simply engineer a high-dose version of its rootworm-targeted corn, since that would have lowered resistance pressure and thus addressed the panel's concerns. "Well, from the start, the EPA pushed for a higher dose for the toxin," he said. "My sense is that Monsanto came up with the best they could in terms of dose." Freese stressed that industry rhetoric to the side, the genetic modification of crops turns out to be a rather crude process: The companies can't always make the genes behave exactly as they want them to.

Nevertheless, the EPA registered the rootworm-targeted corn in 2003—and defied the scientific panel it had convened by putting the refuge requirement right where Monsanto wanted it: at 20 percent.

Jilted panel members, along with other prominent entomologists who hadn't been consulted by the EPA, greeted the decision with anger and disbelief, as this May 2003 Nature article [8] (behind a pay wall but available here [9]) shows."The EPA is calling for science-based regulation, but here that does not appear to be the case," one scientist who served on the panel told Nature. Another added: "This is like the FDA approving a drug with flimsy science and saying to then do the safety testing... I don't think that's how you do science."

Eight years later, Monsanto and the EPA have been proven wrong, and their scientific critics have been vindicated. Monsanto, meanwhile, booked robust profits selling its corn seeds without the burden of a 50 percent refuge requirement—and continues to do so today even as the tehnology fails.

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