Monsanto Corn Under Attack From Superbugs

Sep 1, 2011 3:31 pm

Rootworms have developed a resistance to Bt

Corn harvest
Photo: Tuscola Joe on Flickr
Nearly 1/3 of corn in the U.S. contains Bt.
 

For the past eight years Monsanto’s genetically modified corn has grown uninterrupted in the fields of Iowa until last month’s discovery of a superbug. According to Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann, western corn rootworms found in four Iowa fields have developed a resistance to Monsanto’s pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) allowing the bug to eat its fill on previously untouchable corn.

Nearly one-third of all corn in America contains Monsanto’s Bt, but the potential superbug could seriously affect Monsanto’s grip on the seed market. The popularity of Monsanto’s insect-killing seeds among farmers is easy to understand. When Monsanto’s Bt seeds were released in 2003, farmers jumped at the chance to use bug-resistant seeds to plant highly-subsidized corn year after year instead of rotating their crops (the traditional method of pest control). Not surprisingly, corn was planted three consecutive years in a row on the four fields where the superbug was found, giving the bugs a chance to build up a resistance to the pesticide. Does this signify the end of Monsanto? Unlikely. Monsanto’s stock (MON) fell briefly after the Wall Street Journal’s report on the Iowa study, but it has since recovered.

Here is what the media are saying about the discovery of the superbug:

The Wall Street Journal reports on Monsanto’s calm reaction to the potentially devastating report.

“Monsanto said its rootworm-resistant corn seed lines are working as it expected ‘on more than 99% of the acres planted with this technology’ and that it is too early to know what the Iowa State University study means for farmers.”

Mother Jones draws a parallel between the superbugs and Monsanto’s earlier problem with superweeds.

“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.’”

Agriculture.com relates Monsanto’s proposed solution to any superbug troubles.

“‘We've known about this for years,’ Brett Begemann [Executive VP at Monsanto] says at a Decatur, Ill. farm trade show. ‘The key is that it has not been getting worse.’ And for farmers worried about resistant rootworms, he has a solution: MON's own SmartStax corn seed, which includes another trait that will kill the bugs.”

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