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Corn Growers Turn to Pesticides After Genetically Modified Seeds Fail

The $1 billion pest has done it before. It beat crop rotation during the 1990s when a new strain of the western corn rootworm began breeding opposite fields so they’d be ready for corn planting in the following year. “Up until then rotation of corn and soybeans was a pretty good control strategy,” University of Illinois entomologist Michael Gray told Food Safety News.

After that came the controversial genetically modified Bt seeds–from Monsanto and licensed to others—that came with built-in toxins to slay the destructive corn rootworm.  And everyone from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that approved them to Monsanto who developed them to Land Grant universities who monitor the performance of American agriculture—all said use of the Bt seeds would reduce pesticide use.

Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops did result in some reduced pesticide use. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources figures Bt crops reduced insecticide use by 10-12 million pounds annually in the period from 1996 to 2011. There is USDA data showing an even more dramatic decline.

But in the last couple years, the billion dollar pest with a new immunity has begun striking back against Monsanto’s Bt seed. And America’s corn farmers—who are planting a near record 97.3 million acres this year—are responding with the only weapon in their arsenal by dramatically upping their pesticide use.

Any reduction now looks to be history. Coming off two extraordinary years when acres dedicated to corn produced $77 and nearly $80 billion, respectively, in 2011 and 2012 with corn prices of $6.22 and $7.40 per bushel, growers are not pulling back and pesticides are now one of their big “inputs” in the corn crop.

Even though $2 corn was a reality as recently as 2005, they see too many competing uses for their product to be gloomy about the future. Beverages, high fructose corn syrup, starch, cereals and sweeteners are among uses of corn in food. Corn-fed beef, poultry, pork and dairy are its principal feed uses. And then on the fuel front ethanol demands are around 500 million bushels of corn.

More pesticide bought to control another break-out of the western corn rootworm is seen by most growers as just a little more insurance, according to both Gray and Benbrook. Gray, who discovered severe rootworm injury in a Cass County, IL cornfield in June 2012, says most growers made decisions about pesticide use this year based on their harvest experiences last fall.

Earlier in 2013, Gray meet with Illinois corn and soybean growers at five locations in the state. He used hand-held “clickers’ to survey growers, finding on average 92 percent planned to plant a Bt hybrid for corn rootworm protection in 2013, but on average 46.66 percent also plan to apply insecticides at planting.

After his meetings with almost 600 Illinois growers, Gray predicted the sharp increase in planting-time soil insecticides with corn rootworm Bt hybrids. Last week, that prediction was verified with the Wall Street Journal reporting surging insecticide sales for companies like American Vanguard Corp. and Syngenta AG.

Corn growers, according to Gray, are “covering their bets” by upping their pesticide use while sticking with a Bt hybrid for corn rootworm. Benbrook agrees growers are “all in in their bet on corn.”

Gray’s work with Illinois corn growers even brought a response from Monsanto last year. The giant agri-business suggested growers using their product should rotate their crops and traits, and buy their dual of mode action products. At this point, Monsanto’s dominance in America’s cornfields is not threatened. That could change if one of its topline products is breaking down.

For 2013, more acres have been planted with genetically modified corn than ever, and its being planted with more pesticides than in more than a decade. USDA’s current forecast for harvest time is for corn selling for around $4.50 a bushel.

That would be enough to cover the “inputs” and clear a profit. Droughts or disease that reduce yields could increase prices. Memories of last fall’s corn futures of $8.50 continue to dance in the heads of growers.

With more than 40 states contributing to the U.S, corn crop, growers continue to have significant political clout. They no longer get direct payment from the USDA if prices go south, but the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program takes up the slack.

© Food Safety News
  • What is the failure really attributed to here? Pest resistance is an old problem, and we know resistance must be managed, so can we really say that the “failure” is due to genetic engineering or is it really due to lack of pesticide management? While it’s *easy* to blame the relatively new technology of genetic engineering – in my humble opinion, the blame should be placed where it belongs, in order for people to understand why integrated pest management is so important.

    From the small scale of treating your home and garden to the large scale of agriculture, we all must be careful to respect the pest treatments that we use or resistance *will* develop, whether or not genetic engineering is involved. Evolution is powerful! Some populations of rootworms have even evolved to emerge from the soil every other year instead of every year in order to avoid the pest control method that is crop rotation.

    Pest management must involve rotating modes of action (aka different types of pesticides) as well as non-chemical techniques – even when such rotation is more expensive or more difficult. This message gets lost when we blame resistance on big bad gmos.

    • Wes

      Anastasia, the resistance that results here really is a failure of the idea of putting Bt in the corn itself rather than applying it only when needed. Some scientists warned of this outcome when Bt corn was first “invented.”

      Quoting from here, [http://healthspectator.com/the-allure-of-genetic-modification/] “a strategy to constitutively express an insecticidal compound in large-scale crop monocultures (15 million acres of Bt corn was planted in the United States in 1998, 20% of the total acreage of corn), and thus expose a homogeneous subecosystem continuously to the toxin, seems bound to create Bt-toxin-resistant pests because of heavy selection pressure. Sooner or later we will likely see Bt-toxin resistance in those insects that are continuously in contact with these monocultures and feed on them. If or when this occurs, we will have lost the use of a valuable bio-insecticide. For about 30 years Bt toxin has been applied on the spot (by spraying B. thuringiensis directly onto plants) and only when there are signs of infestation of the crops by insects. It is the most successful biological insecticide control system we have and would probably retain its potency against pests for many more years to come.”

      Theo Walliman from the Institute of Cell Biology in Zurich, Switzerland then goes on to predict that the constant application of Bt toxins as Bt corn will eliminate the usefulness of a completely non-toxic insecticide (when used correctly) within a matter of years. Apparently he was right.

    • mark@amestax.com

      Anastasia, why do you use the term “evolution” here? The root worm is still a root worm. It merely has used the genetic material already present in its population to give us new generations carrying the most resistant genes. In other words, the genes needed to resist the Bt trait in the corn have always been present in some of the rootworm population. It’s called survival of the fittest, but nothing has evolved in the sense that we are seeing a new species being developed. There are no mutations involved, and no new genetic information being created. If we did away with the Bt trait in corn, the rootworm population would soon return to its former self.

    • greenid1

      You ARE what you eat.

      By splicing the genes to make the plants pest-resistant, we are eating these pesticides. As a result, we are becoming pesticide facilities. And now we have superweeds, and more chemicals are being used to fight them.

      Do you not wonder why so many babies are being born with food intolerances or why so many people are suddenly developing intolerances to foods they’ve eaten their whole life? It’s time to wake up and realize that Monsanto and other big corporations are leading us to our deaths.

      64 countries have banned GMOs. Why not the US? Money talks. These big corporations are buying their approvals.

  • Val Giddings

    I have a question for those who would blame “gmos” for the evolution of resistance by pests: do you blame your knife for getting dull if you use it on the counter top instead of a cutting board? That tools will fail when abused is no surprise at all. Farmers who practiced good stewardship, proper rotations, and IPM are not having problems with the evolution of resistance in target pests. End of story.

    • Jim Olson

      If only reality were that simple, Val.

    • jdjohnny

      the whole point of GMO was to limit the need for pesticides now that they are resistant there is the need for more besides the fact that this causes wide spread gene mutation so NOW whats right whats wrong here???????? never needed so much pesticides befroe GMO GET IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! read the facts people before
      you comment!!!!!!

      • Arthur Doucette

        Read it carefully,

        Pesticide use went DOWN, now it has come back up in some areas, but the article did not say it has increased above what it was before Bt corn was introduced.

        • jenny moore

          The point is this is sold as the panacea and is costing the farmers. Not only are these chemical companies controlling the farmers with the seed supply, ergo, our food supply, they are failing to come up with the goods. Hopefully! We will have a farming ‘industry’ left when their experiment has failed. Not sure where this leaves the ‘mouths to feed’ that they keep on going on about!
          What is this – stop being emotional cry? Is it the superior way to be un-emotional? Does it pre-suppose an intelligent, measured, un-biased position? Or are you substituting ‘scientific’

      • mark@amestax.com

        jdjohnny, there is no gene mutation involved here. The rootworms who already have some degree of resistance are the ones giving us new generations of resistant rootworms.

    • farmber

      Yes, resistance by pests is well known. But industrialized agriculture has been playing the pest-resistance game for a long time now. There’s Lots of money to be made developing and selling the latest pesticide and stacked gene formulations — and the farmers who buy into the chemical and GMO systems are placed forever on that pesticide treadmill — and remain completely dependent on agribusiness inputs for their survival.

      Pesticide-dependent Biotech has greatly exacerbated the situation and — yes — is shamefully very much to blame for this deplorable state of industrialized agriculture, despite attempts at self-serving spin and blaming farmers.

      And alternative, ecological farmers who primarily manage pests with a variety of biological controls also suffer greatly. They are on the verge of losing the value of Bt, for instance, because it has been genetically engineered into millions of crop acres.

  • And here is where most of my pushback against GMO resides. It’s a flawed concept that ultimately ends up leading to worse environmental impact rather than better. Plus it adds an extreme burden onto the farmers who buy into the hype.

    • Michael Bulger

      And GMO proponents often justify their marketing based on the fact that farmers buy them. I’ve seen Anastasia write something along the lines of, ‘farmers aren’t dumb, so obviously their purchases reveal the best approach.’ (Not an exact quote, but the gist of the sentiment).

      Now, all of a sudden, it’s the farmer (and not biotech) that is to blame. I guess agrarian infallibility is only useful when arguing one side of the topic.

      • Pat

        Since I began doing the ordering I have found that local outlets only stock GMOs. So if you don’t ask questions that’s what you get. I had to special order all our seed and specified non-GMO. After all, we don’t spray so why pay twice as much for the treated seed? We don’t spray cos I don’t want to lose the wild grapes and elderberries etc. I like jelly.

  • flameforjustice

    No matter who’s to blame and who you blame the important thing here is the health and safety of the planet and the life that inhabits this planet.

  • So if we move to non-Bt corn life will be great? Is that the take-away message here? Anti-GMO activists seem to think that’s the solution.

    Doesn’t look like that to me.

    • Well, I don’t think we’re seeing long term success with GMO crops, do you?

      GMO cotton in India is devastating the local economy, driving many small farmers to take their own lives. Why? Because one of the problems with the cotton is it requires consistent and large amounts of moisture which the regions can’t guarantee, so the yield is poor, but the cost is extremely high.

      It’s a shell game. Wild claims are made in favor of GMO crops, but when the crops don’t meet the expectations, it’s (as Michael Bulger states), all the fault of the farmer.

      You know the only people benefiting seem to be the people pushing the seed.

    • mattspiegler

      If the GMO Bt corn is failing in some of the areas that it is specifically supposed to be an improvement on (e.g. reduced pesticide use) then what exactly is the point of using it, especially given the other negatives?

  • mark@amestax.com

    Gnarone, try being a farmer in Iowa faced with making a profit on 2,000 acres of corn he is planting. If he doesn’t use this technology he will go broke. He has to be a scientist and engineer to make extremely complex decisions about what to plant and how to successfully get it to market. If he doesn’t use this technology to raise 250 bushel per acre corn, and instead only gets 50 to 75 bushels per acre, not only does he lose his shirt, but the world will be hungrier. How do you know GMO’s are not fit to eat? Where is your hard evidence? Until we leave emotion behind and be rational about this, we are not going to make correct decisions about the viability of any plant technology.

  • For Healthy World

    It’s difficult for one farmer to go organic if his neighbor raises GMO crop because of the cross-pollination. Monsanto is suing farmers who clean seed to replant because they hold a patent on their GMO seeds. This is all a money game and Monsanto and their dealers are selling you a “bag of goods” so they can make a big profit, regardless of the harm it is doing to the health of the world. Are we going to continue to buy into the sales pitch of this big monopoly? Has money become the almighty god of this world? It is time to stand up for our principals and morals and do the right thing. Let’s all go non-GMO and organic and learn how to live in health and contentment, thinking of what kind of world we will hand down to our grandchildren.

    • jennifer

      I agree..Monsanto has bought their way in..some farmers were shut down by Monsanto because they did not want to raise gmo crops…some countries will no longer take U.S.A. monsanto crops..we need to go back to organic foods and quit poisoning the next generation…unfortunately Monsanto has become so powerful they have bought their way in politically just like big pharma..no one can buck them unless all citizens say enough!

  • hayne

    Its unsafe to eat it’s not good for humans to eat poison. Are you people fucking retarded. Maybe you eat to many GMO to get it.

  • josetony

    I still dont believe why farmers keep planting GMOs after all the evidence of beeing toxic for human consumption. they are the ones creating all this mess with the quality of food.

  • Jimcb

    GMO’s don’t add pesticides, it modify the genes to resist the pests from eating it and it refrains the plant from absorbing herbicides.The farmers are adding this stuff to double down their fields. They
    need to rotate their crops between the two Bt corn and soy so the worm has no were to feed.