Urgent: Ask EPA to Stop the Spread of Superbugs

superbugs destroy corn cropsYou show me a concern about genetically-modified crops (GM) and I’ll show you a hundred posts on this site alone pointing to Monsanto as the culprit as well as to the dangerous effects of this agricultural system.

Apparently, after promising farmers their GM corn would resist crop pests, Monsanto, and Midwestern corn fields, are seeing the evolution of insects that have begun to resist the toxins in these “super” crops. How are they made? Monsanto’s GM corn is bred to include something called a Bt toxin, a sort of genetic manipulation to make crops produce their own pesticide. Even without the problem of resistant insects, it’s dangerous to feed the masses vegetables that have been injected and manipulated with toxins, especially without being fully tested. Currently, the EPA mandates farmers use non-Bt corn for at least 20% of their fields. But this number should be significantly raised. FRESH, the movie and activist organization promoting food safety, has put out a call-to-action, urging consumers to ask the EPA to enforce their rules requiring the planting of other types of corn.FRESH says this:

To promote crop rotation and to create “refuges” for non-resistant rootworms, the EPA mandates that farmers use non-Bt corn for at least 20% of their fields. But unfortunately, blinded by Monsanto’s promises of higher yields, not all farmers are complying with the regulations. In fact, data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests that one out of every four farmers who plants Bt corn is not in compliance, and the number is growing. This drastically increases the likelihood that pesticide-resistant insects will attack future crops, including organic and non-GM corn.

Take action if superbugs scare you and you’d like to see a safe future for our food.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo from mattdente.

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About the Author

Social media strategist and writer. Passionate about food policy, education and women's issues. Has written for Vegan Mainstream, The Next Great Generation, Dig Magazine (Baton Rouge), BlogCritics , and occasionally for Vegansaurus . Will accept payments in coffee and/or tofu scramble upon request. Graduate of the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism.
  • GH

    Oh come on. They’re not super pests, they’re resistant to a the Bt trait. Pests and plants have been doing this since, well, forever, and the emergence of resistance is hardly new. If this is really a concern for you, then why no complaining about when it happens in other, non-GE crops? Wheat and hessian flies recently came up, yet that’s not an issue because it does not involve GE? Pretty inconsistent.

    You say it is dangerous to feed people food with toxins in it. Do you even know what a secondary metabolite is? How do you think plants defend themselves from the billions of bugs out there that want to eat them? They came to the same conclusions humans did: use poisons! Have you ever wondered how breeders develop pest resistant lines? Increase the poisons!

    Then you imply it is untested. Simply false. The cry proteins work by binding to receptors found only in certain insects, and are only active in alkaline environments (mammalian guts are acidic). To a human body, it is just another protein. You could eat fistfuls of this stuff with no ill effects. And you do know who the first people to use Bt were yes?

    Certainty, this is a call to improve pest management systems and more strictly enforce refuge area plantings, and it illustrates the problems with over relying on one mode of combating pests (kind of like a monoculture of genes), but it is hardly ‘genetic engineering creates super pests’ as so many are making it out to be. However, I do find it funny how many anti-GE people are talking about this now. First claim that Ge doesn’t work, then when you see resistance, point out the resistance. You can’t have resistance without selection pressure, and you can’t have that without the trait being effective. Accepting the existence of resistant pests implies acknowledgement of the effectiveness of the crop. You can’t say they don’t work AND produce resistant insects. That doesn’t make sense, and not in terms of anything relating to biotech, but in terms of population genetics. I also like how they say that farmers don’t want GE crops, then talk about how they’re not planting enough refuge areas. Yep, they want GE seed so little that they plant more than they should.

    • Tanya Sitton

      Soooo, GH…. what’s your affiliation? that’s a pretty long pro-GE rant for someone just sorta randomly popping by eatdrinkbetter.com over coffee or something. Looks like you’re invested in the biotech world, so disclose por favor– if your income’s dependent on it, it makes sense for you to argue that position but not for us to buy it; if it isn’t, I don’t think you’d spend the time typing that up. It reads like a PR piece– Monsanto’s kinda known for trawling sites like this and posting comments like the one above. So, you know, I was just wondering.

      If you’re NOT being paid for taking a pro-GMO position, you might think it through a little more… the logic’s weak, imo. They’re superpests due to the prevalence of GM plants in our most commonly raised crops (corn, soy), due to the monopolizing stranglehold Monsanto has cultivated around the necks of our farmers; plants and pests haven’t ‘been doing this forever’, since this toxin was suddenly/ artificially introduced to the ecosystem in question rather than evolving concurrently with the pests in question– this is the first time in history plants and pests have done ‘this’; much biotech toxicity IS untested, due to cries of patent infringement when independent scientists actually try to conduct meaningful testing– if there is no toxicity, Monsanto has brought this problem upon themselves by attempting to bribe officials and by firing scientists who raised concerns about– yep– toxicity, based on early testing results. Also, clearly they don’t work because they DON’T increase life quality for farmers, they DON’T lead to less environmental problems, they DON’T provide what consumers have repeatedly said they would buy if given the opportunity to choose (ie non-GMO food)– and they DON’T work because they DO produce resistance, and therefore represent a pointless modification. Crop rotation, anyone?

      SO, yeah– disclose, or rethink; that’s my respectful request and/ or advice.

      PR fail.

      • GH

        Well I didn’t really spend much time typing that. I’ve wasted far more time on other comments than that one (this comment for instance). I can’t help but notice how often that ‘who pays you’ angle comes up though. Not just with genetic engineering I mean, but with anything. You point out that vaccines don’t cause autism…pharma shill! You point out the climatic warming trend…Al Gore shill! You show evidence of evolution…something shill! Can we as a society please get over that? I’ve never accused anyone who opposes genetic engineering of working for an organic food producer (well, excepting occasional sarcasm anyway). I’ve often found that a positions validity is inversely proportional to its proponents’ willingness to accuse opposition of being paid propaganda. Anyway, no, I don’t work for Monsanto or whatever other astroturf conspiracy you think you must be in to support GE. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps there are other reasons to support genetic engineering? I’m no more pro-GMO than I am pro-vaccine or pro-climate change or pro-Pythagoras’ theorem There are idea’s supported by facts, and those that are not.

        And yes, the evolutionary arms race, the Red Queen’s Race it has been called, has been going on forever. Plant gets eaten, suddenly gets a new mutation that defends it, the gene spreads (or contaminates as people now call it) to the rest of the population, the insects lose a food source, an insect mutates to overcome the plant’s mutation (superpests!), that gene spreads, the cycle repeats. How does it work with GE? Replace mutation with transformation event. Nature is not as smooth as you seem to think it is(granted, this whole line of thought is dangerously close to an appeal to nature anyway). It is certainty true that the monocultures of modern agriculture have sped the process up (yet another argument for crop diversity), but population genetic does not care if a gene got there. Just like the wheat example I gave. Sudden mutation, prevalent is wheat crops…yet those pests aren’t also superpests because GE was not involved?

        You can pick out plenty of studies on GE crops. The funny thing is though, the Bt protein has been used in organic farming for decades. I suppose organic farming is on the list of things that need to get tested too, because otherwise that’s another inconsistency. And for all those cries of human health concern, it would be nice if someone would do more than just talk about it in the basest of senses. Anyone can claim something is toxic, but it takes some evidence to explain it. Has anyone ever proposed any genetic mechanism for how genetic transformation would produce dangerous substances (yet conventional breeding, mutations, homologous recombination/crossing over/transposon, natural horizontal gene transfer do not)? Has anyone explained why cry proteins, epsps proteins, bar enzymes, or CMV/PRSV proteins (those inserted into currently grown GE crops) would be hurtful? If it isn’t those proteins directly, has anyone ever put forward a biochemical basis for the alleged harm, including the structure of the causative agent, its mode of action, genetic basis and/or synthesis pathway? No. I wonder why. Patents? Yep, I’m sure it is patents that stop anyone from buying an ear of corn. Anti-GE protestors (including big names like Greenpeace) have no problems vandalizing research, but they wouldn’t offend a patent? Right. You know and I know if there was any solid evidnece we’d have heard about it in clear terms. But we haven’t. And that which can be said without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, but as it so happens, I have plenty (http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/independent-funding/).

        What you say about the environment and farmers lives is simply false. What you say about them not working, yet still producing resistance runs counter to everything in population genetic and evolutionary science. Not biotech, standard biology. How much science are you willing to throw out to make your point? And last I checked, farmers enjoy GE crops. If they don’t, they’re free to not buy them. Funny how your article mention that they’re not planting enough refuge area, then you say they’re not providing the farmers any benefit. Yep, that must be why they’re buying and planting more of the expensive seed.

        Crop rotation you say? Where did I say anything but? Let me guess, you assume that by supporting GE, I automatically support everything else you associate with GE, and I could never support anything like IPM, biological pest controls, intercropping, promotion of biodiversity, ect, right? Well, that would be a false dichotomy. Crop rotation is mentioned all the time when talking about preventing resistance emergence, and of course a good rotation is part of any long term sustainable pest management plan. Don’t think this is black and white. GE is a method of improving a plant. That’s it. Systems that follow are not relevant to the method of the creation of the plant itself.

  • Tanya Sitton

    Briefly:
    — Are you arguing in good faith that there is no research pointing to health problems (or potential health problems) from any GE crops? specifically regarding organ function? I think that would be a difficult position to support, and if that’s what your saying then let’s go there. I’m open to bringing all the data we’re both considering to spread out on the debate table, and seeing where we are.
    — The idea of GE toxins in plants was to get away from heavy pesticide use. With the (predictable) high resistance emerging among targeted pests, this is a bunk argument– so it’s a pointless modification and therefore does NOT work, per its stated intended purpose.
    — If GE was a godsend to all farmers, 270,000 of them would not be suing Monsanto over GE issues practically right this minute.

    GMO doesn’t have to be black and white– few things are– but the way it’s been handled in the US is not reasonably defensible, in my opinion. Whatever the hypothetical responsible way to approach GE issues might be– and I’ve heard some arguments that *aren’t* bunk, especially from the authors of ‘Tomorrow’s Table’– what we’ve been doing with GE in this country is not a good idea. The resistant pests are only part of it, but were totally predictable and negate the promised benefit of GE toxin-producing crops– but hey, they brought in a bunch of dough, so that’s.the.main thing, right?! Biotech company profits as sole consideration = poor tool for farming decisions– that’s surely how it looks to me.

    We’re not going to agree, I’m sure; but without forming conclusions *before* considering the issues, and bending the facts to fit, I’d have a hard time getting from what I see to where your conclusions land. And despite your tone, I don’t think it’s that I’m uneducated about the issues, or eager to ‘throw science out.’ I think that — oddly enough — I just disagree with your interpretation of the available data.

    My perspective is that of a consumer with a biology/ health sciences background, who became interested in GE issues a few years ago upon realizing how little biotech companies want the public to know about GE foods and their effect on biological and ecological systems. The more I followed the activities and shady marketing techniques of US biotech companies (ie ‘giving’ GE crops to impoverished countries, where they took over native varieties of crops so that the people had no choice but to pay patent fees for GM corn or whatever, etc etc etc) the more I became convinced that what we are doing with biotech– not vague philosophical hypotheticals, but what we’re actually doing with it– is a bad idea.

    I notice you didn’t say… what’s your interest or affiliation? How did you come to be so passionately pro-GE? I don’t think that’s an unfair question, since affiliation colors perspective. Saying ‘everyone makes a shill argument’ doesn’t negate the question. I think it helps the debate to know where everyone’s coming from– or, in some cases, helps to see when there’s no point to debating, due to perspectives and values so mismatched as to limit the potential for productive and meaningful exchange of ideas.

    • GH

      If you have a study indicating that GE crops are causing organ damage, I’d love to know about that. It would change my opinion. It’d be really interesting if they could put a biochemical explanation on it. Although I’d hope it would be better than the last one people used to make that claim, which turned out to rely on poor statistics more than anything (and naturally, no explanation…I wonder why?). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this one pop up (http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm), which I think says something none too good about the quality of what passes for fact on some parts of the internet.

      The idea that GE crops reduce pesticides is not bunk. It is the same principle that any other resistant variety uses. They’ve reduced pesticide use in some places so much that non-target insects (like mirid bugs) that once weren’t pests have actually become pests. Yes, pests adapt, and this is a universal fact of evolution. While you can disagree with a particular use of a technology, disagreeing with evolutionary fact is another matter, and no offense, but if you’re disagreeing with this that that does strike me as a bit uneducated. Population genetics applies to any resistance, be they naturally occurring, the result of a human selected mutation, or genetically engineered. If they didn’t we’d already have bred be all end all varieties in terms of pest resistance, but the natural resistances inevitably fail in time, like with the hessian flies I mentioned, and GE traits are no different. The most important aspect, be it the natural resistance, bred one, or GE one, is the system they’re in, and the one the Bt GE crops has been is is flawed in an over-reliance on the trait. Speaking of over-reliance, if the GE crops didn’t cut the use of pesticides, how do you suppose insects resistant to the trait came to be? Why would it even be a problem if they weren’t doing anything? Again, you can’t claim they do nothing AND produce dangerous resistance.

      Why are 270,000 farmers suing Monsanto? Good question, considering that there are less than a million people in the US who list farming as their primary occupation and that something to the tune of 90% of certain crops are GE. The answer is they aren’t. The Cornacopia Institute’s lawsuit, if that’s what you’re referring to, says that the organization represented in the lawsuit have over 270, 00 members. It mentions only 60 farmers actually in the lawsuit. Quite the difference.

      Also, the continual focus on corporate profits smacks of how the right goes on about how corporations could lose money if climate change measures were taken. I don’t care if a corporations are going to make or lose billions. That isn’t relevant, although in this case they wouldn’t be making so much if they weren’t selling something people bought. But let me ask you…do you support the Rainbow papaya, produced by the University of Hawaii? What about Golden Rice, or the HoneySweet plum? These are just a few of the non-profit, non-corporate GE crops (granted, only the Rainbow papaya has been released thanks to over-regulation). How do you feel about them? I can’t help but notice the opposition that even the Rainbow papaya gets.

      You mention GE varieties replacing native varieties. The problem with that line of reasoning is that genetic engineering is just one aspect of plant improvement. The larger issue there would be a non-local variety replacing a local one. That it also has a transgene is not relevant. That argument applies more to breeding than anything. Also, from what I heard (and I could be wrong here), in developing countries you only have to pay the royalty fee if you make less than $10000 USD, which I suspect is most farmers in such countries.

      Who am I? No one important, not that it would change the validity of what I say either way.. Just a hort sci student. Really, GE isn’t even my favorite topic…I’m much more interested in under-cultivated crop species (quinoa, goumi, jicama, ect). It just gets on my nerves to see one of the most powerful and useful tools plant improvement techniques slandered that way that it has been. This leads to more people fearing GE crops, which leads to more regulations, which leads to less ability to use GE…unless you’re a large corporation with the ability to jump through those regulatory hurdles. The anti-GE movement is the best thing that ever happened to those big biotech companies. Everyone else loses though (except for professional activists who make a living going around lying about GE crops). People with vitamin A deficiency don’t get Golden Rice, producers of horticultural crops (each of which hold less market value the any give agronomic crop, meaning there is much less ability and incentive to pay the money to do the testing to bring the crop to market) don’t get new varieties that could benefit them, crops that haven’t had thousands of years of breeding don’t get traits they could use to facilitate cultivation, the enlightenment values of science and reason are replaced by superstitions, and the food supply becomes less efficient and secure. And speaking of who I am, I’ll note that in my time here I’ve tried my best to find a single professor in agriculture or plant biology or biochemistry or genetics who isn’t pro-GE. Haven’t found a single one yet. The last one I spoke to attributed the fear of genetic engineering itself to ignorance (although I’ve heard others put it in stronger terms). Why do you suppose that is so?

      • Tanya Sitton

        Would you argue that biotech research has demonstrated the safety of all currently sold GM crops, relative to human health? I assume we at least agree that those who sell GE food crops should use the precautionary principle, and rule out potentially damaging food additives with good scientific due diligence. I think there are about 19 studies that generate questionable findings, which I will find and share as time allows; but the burden of proof is on biotech companies releasing new GE crops into the food supply. Please bring the studies you think support that they have done this adequately, and I’ll put together some things I think indicate reasonable cause for concern. Then we can go from there. I don’t think your position is supportable, but: convince me. Data *then* conclusions, not the other way around: that’s the science deal. Caveat: that applies equally to pro- and anti- GM proponents!

        Also, are you arguing the position that the agricultural industry uses less pesticide than before Roundup-Ready soybeans were widely marketed? Again, bring your data– I don’t think that’s supportable.

        The problem in rural areas where GE corn (or whatever) was used to contaminate local species is that saving seeds from season to season no longer works, and small landholders have no choice but to buy GE seeds. Who does this represent and ‘improvement’ for?!

        I think the tone of ‘if you don’t agree with me you’re stupid and uninformed’ does no favors for the pro-GE crowd, or anyone else. There seem to be some Phd’s on both sides of most GM issues– and there’s a separation, too, between hypothetical best-practice ‘plant improvement’ and what’s actually been done with GE technology by Monsanto et al… Not everyone who is educated about the issues involved with biotechnology agrees with your interpretation of the data. Strange but true.

        • GH

          If you’re still there, the ’19 studies’ you are referring to did not actually say that, rather, it was a meta-study of other studies (read the study itself here: http://www.enveurope.com/content/23/1/10). I’ve known about that one for a while, but after Séralini’s other things (like his previous study you mentioned, his lawsuit, and his attack on French education) I never really gave it much notice. Séralini is kind of a joke to be blunt. But going through it anyway, I do notice a few things that confirm my suspicions. First, more than a couple of the studies he cites conclude that there is no difference in between GE and non-GE, except for the cited studies that he himself published (though to be fair a few seem to indicate variance in some biological parameters but giving their methodologies a quick glace they’re going to need stronger evidence than that to make any real claims). Second, he still doesn’t provide any plausible mechanism for the happening. Strange that he can’t seem to be bothered elucidating the one thing that would prove him right more than anything else. Third, you’ve got to weigh that against the rest of the evidence, which he doesn’t. So all in all, that one doesn’t impress me much, nor is is sufficient evidence

          I doubt there is much of a correlation to be made between pesticide use and Round-Up traits. With the Bt trait, yes, they’ve gone down. The herbicide traits have however made Round-Up use go up. No surprise. They’ve also made the use of other herbicides go down, which lowers the overall environmental impact. (Data? http://ddr.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/14540/1/IND43964633.pdf http://wwwdata.forestry.oregonstate.edu/orb/pdf/Pray.2002.pdf http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/courses/Bio4213/05/quaim.pdf among others)

          You mention saving seeds from season to season. You seem to be confusing GE with hybridization.

          I’m not saying that anyone who disagrees with me is stupid and uninformed. If you disagree with GE crops, or Monsanto, or some specific issue, you’re entitled to your own opinion. But you’re not entitled to your own facts. You don’t like them, that’s your subjective decision. You claim that they’re dangerous, that’s not a different interpretation of the data, that’s just objectively wrong. And yes, I know there a people with PhDs on both sides, but the balance is very heavily slanted, and not in the anti-GE side’s favor. There are PhDs who don’t believe in climate change, evolution, or the safety of vaccinations too; that doesn’t mean those positions have merit.

          • Tanya Sitton

            Ok, so we agree that your original point– that you know a lot of hort-sci professionals who are pro-GE– is irrelevant, since there are educated people on both sides of the debate. Good. Progress.

            Yes, I know it was a meta-analysis, thanks– that was tongue-in-cheek, because the key factor in those 19 studies isn’t what they say; it’s where they stopped, and how they were run. Doubt is key to science– where are the peer reviewed studies on chronic and developmental issues potentially affected by GE foods? where are the peer reviewed anything?! it’s all in-house. Am I missing some studies? Which Lancet or JAMA ran those? I’m open– truth rules. Maybe I just haven’t been able to find them. But it’s just such a protected bunch of data, I can’t take it any more seriously than you take Seralini.

            Saving seeds from season to season is a problem for both hybrids and GE seeds, just for different reasons; no, I’m not mixing them up. Yes, sometimes the patent fees are waived; but are you arguing that that’s the norm? Doesn’t seem to be.

            Regarding pesticide use and RR crops, I’ll suspend comment until time allows full review of the sources you shared.

            I don’t necessarily ‘claim GE is dangerous,’ at least not in a health related way; I just don’t think due diligence has been done to prove anything on that topic one way or the other, b/c the only ones looking are the ones who don’t wanna find. I do think (for similar fox-and-henhouse reasons) there are potential environmental dangers from GE crops, unlikely to be identified until the damage is done (ie glycophosphates/ stream life, etc), worse than expected from, say, organic agriculture… yes, agriculture always changes ecosystems, but imo GE has the potential for more unanticipated/ intractable problems, due to the sudden introduction of a completely new element to the system.

            Anyway.

            Interesting discussion, thanks for your input. :-)