domingo, abril 04, 2010

First came superweeds; now come the superbugs!

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by Tom Laskawy

pinkThe pink bollworm: the bug that ate Monsanto\'s Bt franchise?Photo: North Carolina State UniversityThe current crop of superweeds plaguing farmers who rely on Monsanto's RoundUp pesticide represents by now a well documented crisis. But watch out, world! Here come the superbugs.

That’s right, Monsanto’s other flagship product, its "Bt" line of genetically modified seeds which emit their own pesticide in the form of a naturally occurring toxin, is now under threat from resistant insects. Science Magazine ($ub req’d) has the details:

Monsanto has revealed that a common insect pest has developed resistance to its flagship genetically modified (GM) product in India. The agricultural biotechnology leader says it "detected unusual survival" of pink bollworms that fed on cotton containing the Cry1Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which codes for a protein that's toxic to many insect pests. In a statement to Science, Monsanto claims that the finding from western India "is the first case of field-relevant resistance to Cry1Ac products, anywhere in the world."

This development comes despite Monsanto's long history of downplaying the probability of the evolution of Bt resistant insects. In some ways, this is a worst case scenario for the biotech giant with both its main genertically engineered seed traits now under attack by Mother Nature. As a result, some analysts marveled at Monsanto's casual announcement of a development that could lead to a collapse of one of its main money-makers:

One prominent researcher questions whether the Gujarat bollworms truly are resistant. Monsanto's conclusions and methodology are "flawed," charges CICR Director Keshav Raj Kranthi, an entomologist. In 8 years of monitoring Bt cotton, he says, CICR has "not found any resistance." Kranthi argues that Monsanto "should have analyzed tens of thousands of specimens before making this claim. ... It's a mystery why Monsanto is trying to kill its own technology." Monsanto disputes that charge; it says its resistance tests were "standard practice" but declined to elaborate on its methodology.

Perhaps it's worth keeping in mind that Monsanto is in the midst of trying to move farmers from its first-generation Bt seed, to its newer [more expensive] second generation Bt seed which expresses multiple versions of the Bt toxin. In theory, this new seed would kill pests that the first gen version might not. Do I smell an ulterior motive?

It's also true that scientists who don't get their paychecks via Monsanto have been warning of Bt resistant insects for quite some time -- and the Science article mentions the fact that, despite Monsanto's claim, resistance to Bt has been seen in North America already. These risks are one of the reasons why the EPA requires farmers to plant "buffer zones" of non-GMO crops around any GMO field which theoretically minimizes the resistance risk. However, as the NYT reported last fall, a surprising number of US farmers ignore those guidelines and increasing the probability of resistant insects.

But it's not just Monsanto we should be worried about -- the NYT observed that widespread Bt resistance would be a huge problem for large organic growers because Bt toxin insecticides are one of the few organic options available. India, which is in the midst of an agricultural crisis and is attempting a significant increase in organic agriculture, is the last place you'd want to see something like this happen.

As one expert summed up the significance of this latest news on GMOs:

I hope that this episode will cut down on the belief ... that Bt has some magical immunity to resistance.

Huh. And I thought it was GMO opponents who were the ones accused of indulging in magical thinking. Well, Monsanto, how's that shoe feel now?

Farmers can feed the world without technical fixes

This is an editorial I wrote together with Friends of the Earth International Chair Nnimmo Bassey. It was first published as an OpEd in the Daily Monitor.

Genetic engineering is a technology in search of a problem; a product in search of a market. Lobbyists from the genetic engineering (GE) industry are offering Africa a stark choice between hunger and GE crops. This is a false choice. Hunger can be avoided without growing and eating GE crops.

Ecological farming which nurtures our soils, cultivates diversity and supplies our families with safe and nutritious food, is the only way to address effectively the serious triple crises of food security, water scarcity and climate change.

Is ecological farming an utopian pipe dream? A luddite manifesto? No. Backed by UNEP and the UN Agriculture Assessment (1), the benefits of ecological farming systems are well known and documented by a substantial and growing band of scientists. They agree on the benefits of supporting local farmers and farm workers to promote systems that minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

The so-called ‘green revolution’ brought about an age in which the massive use of fertilizers and pesticides and ‘modified’ seeds have destroyed soils, put small farmers out of business and concentrated power over our food production into a handful of agro-multinationals. It has reduced diversity and increased vulnerability to threats such as climate change.

Now the same agro-multinationals want to promote their latest ‘technofix’ product, genetically engineered crops.

Current GE crops are heavily dependent on the continued use of large amounts of agrochemicals. GE crops are designed by predatory multinationals prepared to sue farmers for storing seeds from one harvest to plant for the next. Many governments are allowing corporations to patent seeds, helping them to prevent farmers from planting saved seeds, a fundamental right which is the basis of the livelihoods of millions of small farmers.

Agro-multinationals make rash and unsubstantiated promises about their GE crops and chemical intensive farming methods but GE crops are not the solution to hunger in Africa, nor in the rest of the world. Take India for example, which has followed the 'green revolution' model for over 5 decades. Hunger has not been banished, it is not a thing of the past. India is still home to some 214 million hungry people. World hunger cannot be solved just by increasing food production. In the US, 49 million people, including 17 million children, do not have access to a secure food supply.

Moreover, scientists have confirmed that GE crops do not necessarily produce higher yields than natural varieties, according to a report entitled ‘Failure to Yield’ published by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Agro-multinationals also promote ‘yellow rice’ or ‘golden rice’ as the industry likes to call it, which has been genetically engineered to produce pro-vitamin A. However, the same vitamin can be found naturally in leafy vegetables, squashes and some traditional rice varieties. So why should we take risks with a GE techno fix to vitamin A deficiency? It is better to promote a balanced diet based on ecological farming.

Africans know better than most that climate change is real, that it is a huge threat that is happening now. We can adapt to change climate and help mitigating its impacts, again with simple ecological farming practices: protecting crop and seed diversity, and changing grazing systems.

The GE industry’s claims about 'climate-friendly' crops means more fertilizers, corporate control over seeds and a vast reduction in seed diversity. Rather than nurture our threatened soils and seeds the industry would like us to soak them in agrochemicals in order to allow GE crops to grow.

Africa can find at home all it needs to create 21st century ecological farming systems, systems which mean less hunger - not more. Systems which mean a more resilient environment in the face of climate change. Systems which allow farmers to retain control and ownership of their own seed stocks. Systems based on 'food sovereignty', the right to ecological and culturally appropriate food that is sufficiently nutritious, and the right to determine the way it is produced.


(1) The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is online at

Please join us along with Avaaz and Friends of the Earth to call for a moratorium on GE crops in the European Union. The spread of GE food within the EU is a dangerous precedent that will have an impact on the rest of the world - including Africa. We need 1 million signatures. Add your voice now.

Aluta continua,
-- Kumi

Executive Director of Greenpeace International

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