A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences summarizes the spread of rootworm resistance to Bt poisons generated by GMOs. Two of the three commercial Bt traits against rootworm are widely ineffective. The problem is so severe that even a corporatist organization like the NAS feels compelled to discuss it.
This product failure, or to put it another way the triumphant counteroffensive of the rootworms, has been documented for many years now. It happened quickly following the commercialization of the first anti-rootworm GMO products in 2003.
The product genre is in response to an artificial problem, generated completely by the GMO regime itself. In a rational crop rotation and pest management system, as largely prevailed prior to the advent of GMOs in the mid 1990s, rootworm was seldom more than a nuisance to maize farmers. This pest only started becoming a serious problem when farmers were exhorted by Monsanto and the US government to grow corn every year. The Roundup Ready trait and the poison trait vs. the corn borer were alleged to enable this. The fact that it encouraged rootworm infestation, since now their larvae would find new corn to feed on the next year (which is what crop rotation is supposed to prevent, so that the pest can never become well-established), was an intentionally generated problem which Monsanto then answered with its rootworm-resistant poison trait.
Monsanto’s plan was not only to supply this artificially generated demand, but to use this demand as leverage for its “expanded trait penetration” strategy to force stacked products containing the anti-rootworm trait upon farmers who didn’t need it. In the face of a massive farmer outcry and whatever danger there was from the largely illusory Justice Department antitrust investigation, Monsanto backpedaled on this, and today there are plenty of Double Pro varieties without the anti-rootworm trait available. But these are still triple-stacks containing two anti-borer poisons, since borers have been waging their own victorious war against poison-based agriculture, and it’s a fact that the GMO regime can do nothing but try to fight the long defeat as slowly as possible.
The standard treadmill dynamic for both anti-weed and anti-insect GMOs quickly set in with anti-rootworm crops, as rootworms quickly developed resistance to the poison crops which pretended to suppress them. Now this new paper documents how quickly cross-resistance developed between two of the three anti-rootworm traits available. The first anti-rootworm Bt poison was Monsanto’s CryBb1 (“cry” means the crystalline form of the Bt toxin). This was the poison produced by the cells of the original M863 product in 2003, and it remains Monsanto’s anti-rootworm trait to this day. So much for innovation.
Rootworms developed resistance to this toxin, and then more quickly developed resistance to Syngenta’s modified Cry3A which is contained in its MIR604 product line, including the new Duracade line which contains a synthetic combo of Cry3A and an old anti-borer toxin. The paper finds that the Syngenta poison is similar enough to Monsanto’s that rootworms resistant to the latter were likely to also be resistant to the former, and that this is the likely reason for the accelerating resistance. Again, there’s the level of “innovation” among these geniuses. Sounds like such products as Monsanto’s Triple Pro and Syngenta’s Viptera wouldn’t be such good bets if you have a rootworm problem.
Only the Dow/Dupont DAS-59122 product line, containing the Cry34/35Ab1 toxin, still seems to be working for the time being. Of course the more GMO growers switch to the stacked varieties containing this version of the poison, the faster the rootworms will mop up that one too.
This is the same losing arms race as has already been occurring with the corn borer and with Roundup-resistant weeds. As the example of rootworm demonstrates, each new target for the GMO technology more quickly develops resistance to the product genre, just as this target does so more quickly for each new generation of the technological line.
This also gives the lie to the whole notion of “refugia”, which are stands of non-Bt corn which the EPA and similar regulators in other countries require poison crop growers to set aside. The idea is supposed to be that the non-Bt stand provides a “refuge” for insects without a propensity to resistance to survive and interbreed with the naturally resistant ones who have survived feeding on the Bt crop. Their offspring will be less likely to inherit the resistance trait, and therefore the overall conversion of the pest population to a resistant variety is supposed to be delayed.
As we see, the theoretical setting aside of refuges has done little to halt the march of Bt-resistant rootworms. Of course, such refuges were more of a political scam in the first place, since the EPA nor regulators in other countries have been vigilant about enforcing them, nor were they supposed to be. The idea of the refugia, as a way for regulators and corporations to reassure skeptics that the product will work, has always had more significance then their real world application.
This is proven by the fact that, in the same way that regulatory allowed herbicide levels in water and food is set not according to public health or any other scientific measure, but simply reflects whatever level will result from the amount of herbicides corporations need to sell and farmers need to spray, so the refugia percentages aren’t set according to any scientific measure, but at the lowest politically justifiable level.
Thus although USDA entomologists recommended 50% refuge planting if the policy was supposed to have any chance of being effective, the EPA originally set the requirement at 20% for single and then double trait Bt poison crops. Needless to say Monsanto originally opposed the refuge concept as such and has always lobbied for the lowest possible level. The EPA was happy to accept the cartel’s argument that stacked varieties, by incorporating multiple poisons, would attack target insects so many ways at once that the 20% refuge was no longer necessary and could be reduced to 5%. This “reduced refuge” requirement was inaugurated with SmartStax corn in 2009, and we have indeed seen rapid results where it’s come to rootworm resistance. No doubt this will hasten the toppling of that third Bt rootworm trait, since it too is part of SmartStax.
The entomologists are now back and saying “we told you so”. They’re being backed by some parts of the corporate media, which are singling out the reduced refuge policy as kind of anomalous policy “abuse”, along with the scapegoating of farmers standard in the propaganda of a GMO product’s failure stage. As always, the goal is to defend the honor of the insect resistance product genre, and of GMOs as such, by blaming a crisis which can’t be lied away on some extraneous factor.
But the fact is that pest resistance is inevitable when you present the pest with the same challenge year upon year upon year (corn-on-corn, as they call it). No matter what the crop’s defenses, the insect will always win. Even the best refuge policy, vigilantly enforced, would indeed only slightly slow down this process at best.
That GMO proponents have always denied this fact, and the parallel fact of inevitable and accelerating weed resistance, against which there’s not even the meager delaying measure of a “refuge” available, makes them perhaps the oddest group of evolution deniers we’ve ever seen. Odd, especially, given their absurd pretensions to be representatives of “science”.
What’s more, as I’ve written about many times, to believe that a government regulatory bureaucracy actually wants to enforce policy in the public interest, if such enforcement would hinder the corporate prerogative in any significant way, is to fail to understand the nature of this kind of bureaucracy. The EPA hasn’t “dropped the ball” on Bt refugia, or whatever term of expression one might use. It’s done exactly what we should expect: Under pressure from a wide array of public interest perspectives, it enacted a paper policy. It set the mechanisms of this policy at the lowest level of rigor it thought it could get away with, and has been lackadaisical about enforcing even this level. It then touted the policy idea as proof that farmers and the public could trust their judgement, and that things would be fine and work well as the Bt crop project went forward. The rootworms, as well as the borers, have answered.
The fact is that in addition to all their other proven and likely dangers, GMOs were always guaranteed to generate insect and weed resistance against themselves. They were always guaranteed to lead to nothing but an ever-escalating arms race, with the GMO products having to incorporate more and more endemic and sprayed poisons to be even the slightest bit effective. The products would have to become more and more expensive and be ever more poisonous to humans, livestock, and the environment. And the end result of this is guaranteed to be massive crop destruction and the wholesale abandonment of farmland to intractable weeds, as has already been happening in Georgia and elsewhere.
As I described above, much of this was premeditated as a form of planned obsolescence, and as a way of generating new demand, where it came to anti-rootworm crops as such.
Perhaps most of the cadres involved simply refuse to think about the inevitable end of this Tower of Babel, taking solace in the flat-earth fundamentalist mantra, “technology will think of something”. As we can see, it’s been working so well so far. Those who do think about it are simply psychopaths who expect to enjoy their own profits and power before the inevitable end. On Wall Street this way of looking at it is called IBGYBG – “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”, so therefore let’s continue perpetrating these finance cons, constructing these pyramid schemes, blowing up this bubble, since by the time it all blows up we’ll have taken our fat bonuses and run. Individual cartel executives and investors must think the same way.
That’s part of why humanity cannot “coexist” with GMOs. That’s part of why our only option is total abolition. Nothing short of that can stave off the many modes of inevitable failure hardwired into an agricultural regime based on GMOs and poisons. As this example demonstrates well, we cannot rely on “regulators”, let alone the corporations themselves, to act in a way which makes any other course possible. It’s proactive abolition along with the affirmative building of the Community Food and Food Sovereignty movement, or else it’s a very dark future.