About a week ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report expressing concern that Monsanto's genetically modified Bt-corn was causing corn rootworms to develop Bt resistance in at least four states.
Bacillus thuringiensis is not a pesticide -- it is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil and attacks corn rootworms and other insects. In healthy living soil, this bacteria should be able to help control populations of insects that damage crops. As the insects develop resistance, the Bt develops toxicity, in a balanced state of continuous evolution. It ought to concern organic growers everywhere that the vast oceans of Bt-corn are creating superbugs that vastly outpace the ability of Bt to keep up. It's akin to creating mice that are resistant to coyotes and housecats.
Monsanto isolated the toxin from the Bt and inserted it into living crops, essentially making the crop itself as deadly to insects as the soil bacteria. Their New Leaf potato was the first crop to be genetically modified with Bt, back in 1995. Since then, Bt has been added to dozens of other crops, including cotton, rice, and corn, the latter of which is heavily subsidized in the US by payments from the USDA. The EPA's report notes in several places that continuous corn planting -- year after year without rotation of even one other crop -- creates the selective pressure necessary to make rootworm resistance most likely. Scientists quoted in the report recommend, at the very least, alternating Bt-corn with non-Bt corn. But this would require farmers to endure sacrifice years, where they can expect most of their corn crop to be destroyed by the superworms already present in their fields, in an effort to pursue the greater good of reducing overall rootworm resistance.
After the initial assumption that the individual farmer struggling to make payments on his combine is probably not at all interested in sacrificing a year's worth of positive cash flow, my first question is this: Where exactly could a midwestern corn farmer find non-GMO seeds in the quantities needed for thousands of acres? Over 80% of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified -- about 11% of the world's total -- and sources for open-pollinated seed continue to be threatened. Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers for patent infringement when pollen from their GMO crops drifted into neighboring fields, making some farmers afraid to save their own seed at all.
On the bright side, the Organic Farmers and Growers Association is fighting back. In a lawsuit initiated March 2011, this association is asking a judge to declare that pollen drift, over which farmers have very little control, cannot be considered a source of patent infringement. I hope that one day, we'll see organic farmers suing Monsanto for the damages caused when their seed escapes and contaminates heirloom, open-pollinated varieties.