Monsanto (Still) Denies Superinsect Problem, Despite Evidence

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 8:00 AM EST
A corn rootworm: You call it Smartstax, I call it breakfast.

Back in August—as I reported here—something strange began to happen in isolated Iowa corn fields: Otherwise healthy corn plants were falling over, their roots devastated by a ravenous insect called the corn rootworm.

The weird part wasn't pest outbreaks in vast corn fields; farmers know that when you plant a huge amount of land with a single crop, you're also providing a friendly habitat for insects that like to eat that crop. The odd part was that the fields were planted with seed engineered by Monsanto precisely to kill the corn rootworm. Monsanto's product—known as Bt corn—had failed; rootworms were developing resistance to it.

At the time, the EPA—which is responsible for registering pesticide-containing crops like Monsanto's—maintained an icy silence on the matter. But last week, the agency released a report (PDF) that, in calm bureaucratese, rebuked Monsanto for its "inadequate" system for monitoring. It's one of those delectable reports written not by political appointees or higher-ups, but rather by staff scientists reporting what they see. The document offers a fascinating glimpse into the way the agency conducts business with Monsanto.

The report confirmed that resistant rootworms had risen up in four states (Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska) and suspected in three others (Colorado, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). Now, everyone—Monsanto, the EPA, ag scientists—have known all along that resistance was a danger with Monsanto's rootworm-targeting Bt corn. To avoid resistance, the EPA decreed back in 2003 that farmers using the product had to plant a "refuge" crop of non-Bt corn alongside their Bt corn, so that rootworms that had developed Bt resistance would mate with peers that had not been exposed to it, diluting the resistant trait and keeping it under control.

The question was, how large a refuge? Monsanto, hot to move as much product as possible, wanted to keep it small. In this post from early September, I laid out the whole tangled history of how back in 2003, Monsanto strong-armed the EPA into accepting a 20 percent refuge requirement, even after an independent scientific panel convened by the agency had recommended a 50 percent buffer. In a Nature article from the time, available here, scientists involved in the panel express rage at the EPA's cave-in.

With this document, the agency is tacitly acknowledging that its independent advisory panel was right, and Monsanto was wrong. What happens now? The Center for Food Safety's Bill Freese points to research from University of Illinois crop scientist Michael Gray suggesting that in some Illinois farm counties, 40 percent of farmers lack access to high-quality non-Bt corn seed. That same problem likely affects farmers throughout the corn belt. Just as farmers have responded to the collapse of Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-killing technology by dousing their fields with "herbicide cocktails," we'll likely see farmers respond to superinsects with increased doses of toxic insecticides. Beyond that, here are the two takeaways of the EPA's recent bombshell.

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