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Insect Resistance to Bt Plants: A Time Bomb

The agronomist showed me the results of the second study, covering the 2005-6 season. While in 2002-3, the year following the introduction of Bt seeds, the use of insecticides was slightly lower for transgenic plants than for conventional cotton, three years later the “great promise” had been definitively buried: pesticide expenditures were on average 1,311 rupees per acre for conventional cotton growers and 1,351 rupees for their Bt counterparts. “This result did not surprise us, and it can only get worse,” Qayum explained, “because any serious agronomist or entomologist knows very well that insects develop resistance to chemical products designed to fight them. The fact that Bt plants constantly produce the insecticide toxin is a time bomb that we will pay for one day, and the cost may be very high, both from the economic and the environmental point of view.”

In fact, the prospect that cotton (or corn) parasites would mutate by developing resistance to the Bt toxin was raised even before Monsanto put its GMOs on the market. In the mid-nineteen nineties, the strategy the company adopted, in agreement with the EPA, was to have growers of Bt plants agree by contract to preserve plots of non-Bt crops, called “refuges,” where normal insects were supposed to proliferate so that they would crossbreed with their cousins that had become resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis, thereby causing genetic dilution. When insects are constantly confronted with a theoretically fatal dose of poison, they are all exterminated, except for a few specimens endowed with a gene resistant to the poison. The survivors mate with their fellows, possibly transmitting the gene in question to their descendants, and so on for several generations. This is known as “co-evolution,” which, over the long course of the history of life, has enabled species threatened with extinction to adapt in order to survive a fatal disease. To keep this phenomenon from developing among Bt plant parasites, the sorcerer’s apprentices imagined that they just had to maintain a population of healthy insects on the non-transgenic plots—the refuges—so they could mate with their cousins that had become resistant to Bt, thereby preventing the resistant insects from reproducing among themselves.

When Pollan attempted to find out what would happen, “the response [was] more troubling… ‘There are a thousand other Bt’s out there… We can handle this problem with new products… The critics don’t know what we have in the pipeline… Trust us.’”
Once that was established, it remained to determine the size the refuges should have so that the plan would work. The subject was a matter of intense negotiations between Monsanto and the scientists, with the EPA merely recording the outcome. At first, some entomologists argued that the surface area of the refuges should be at least equivalent to that of the transgenic plots. Monsanto, of course, protested, suggesting at first that the surface area of the refuge should equal 3 percent of that of GMOs. In 1997, a group of university researchers working in the Midwest corn belt courageously jumped into the arena with a recommendation that refuges should be equivalent to 20 percent of the transgenic plots, and twice that if the plots were treated with pesticides other than Bt.

This was still too much for Monsanto, as Daniel Charles reports in Lords of the Harvest. “Monsanto looked at the recommendations and said, ‘We can’t live with that,’” says Scott McFarland, a young lawyer who was working for Pioneer at the time.” The company contacted “the National Corn Growers Association, which also had its headquarters in St. Louis. Monsanto’s representatives convinced the leadership of the NCGA that large refuges were a threat to farmers’ free use of Bt.” This went on until September 1998, when the parties met in Kansas City to come to an agreement. As the discussions were getting bogged down in battles over arbitrary percentages, an agricultural economist from the University of Minnesota convincingly demonstrated that, according to his estimates, if the refuges were only 10 percent the size of the transgenic plots, then corn borers, “the target parasite of Bt corn,” would have a 50 percent chance of developing resistance in the short term and that it would cost farmers a good deal. With their wallets directly affected, the farmers joined the camp of the entomologists.

This is why around the world, Bt growers’ manuals since then have required that refuges be equivalent to at least 20 percent of the GMO surface area. But it must be acknowledged that this amounts once again to tinkering and improvisation, because no serious study has been conducted to verify that this compromise—worked out in one corner of Missouri—has any scientific validity. And when Michael Pollan questioned Monsanto representatives on the issue for the New York Times in 1998, they answered: “If all goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years,” which can only be called a short-term policy. When Pollan persisted with Jerry Hjelle, Monsanto vice president for regulatory affairs, attempting to find out what would happen after that crucial period, “the response [was] more troubling… ‘There are a thousand other Bt’s out there… We can handle this problem with new products… The critics don’t know what we have in the pipeline… Trust us.’”

In the meantime, ten years after the inauguration of Bt crops, it is possible to draw up a preliminary assessment of the shiny bureaucratic edifice. First, as an Associated Press dispatch pointed out in January 2001, according to a survey conducted in 2000 “30 percent of [American] Bt corn growers do not follow the published recommendations for the management of resistance,” because they found them too restrictive. To tell the truth, I understand them. But they should, of course, stop supporting such an absurd system, which will sooner or later collapse like a house of cards, as a 2006 study conducted by Cornell University researchers in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Science showed. Considered “the first to look at the longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton,” the study covered 481 of the five million GM producers in China. It found that “the substantial profits they have reaped for several years by saving on pesticides have now been eroded.” According to the authors, while for the first three years after the introduction of Bt crops, farmers had “cut pesticide use by more than 70 percent and had earnings 36 percent higher than farmers planting conventional cotton,” in 2004 “they had to spray just as much as conventional farmers, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed is triple the cost of conventional seed.” Finally, after seven years, “insects have increased so much that farmers are now having to spray their crops up to twenty times a growing season to control them.” The researchers’ conclusion, despite their support for GMOs, is devastating: “These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and governments that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt cotton farmers. Otherwise, these farmers will stop using Bt cotton, and that would be very unfortunate.”

The argument made Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari smile. “In India, where the majority of farmers cultivate between two and five acres, the strategy of refuges is frankly ridiculous. It all shows that GMOs, which are the latest version of the green revolution, were invented for large farmers in the North.”

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Copyright © 2010 by Marie-Monique Robin. This excerpt originally appeared in
The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of
Our Food Supply
by Marie-Monique Robin, published by The New Press.
Reprinted here with permission.

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