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Archive for the ‘Agroecology’ Category

by DAN CHARLES
NPR
December 5,2011

Hidden in the soil of Illinois and Iowa, a new generation of insect larvae appears to be munching happily on the roots of genetically engineered corn, according to scientists. It’s bad news for corn farmers, who paid extra money for this line of corn, counting on the power of its inserted genes to kill those pests. It’s also bad news for the biotech company Monsanto, which inserted the larvae-killing gene in the first place.

In fact, the gene’s apparent failure, as reported in the journal PLoS One, may be the most serious threat to a genetically modified crop in the U.S. since farmers first started growing them 15 years ago. The economic impact could be “huge,” says the University of Arizona’s Bruce Tabashnik, one of the country’s top experts on the adaptation of insects to genetically engineered crops. Billions of dollars are at stake.

The story of how this happened is long and complicated, but the details are important, so let’s start at the beginning.

Almost the entire agricultural biotech industry has been built on just two genetic traits, and our story involves one of them.

The gene (actually a family of genes) in this story — the first pillar of the industry — was copied from an insect-killing bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. In the 1980s, scientists managed to insert a Bt gene into plants, and voila, the plant cells started manufacturing the same worm-killing toxin as the bacteria. (The other big gene for the agricultural biotech industry allows a plant to survive doses of the popular herbicide glyphosate, widely known by Monsanto’s trade name, Roundup.)

So-called Bt corn went on sale in the late 1990s. It has been astonishingly effective against the European corn borer, a common pest.

But from the beginning, scientists worried that biotech companies were overusing Bt and increasing the chances that it would eventually stop working. Why? The key word is resistance.

The more widely you spray any insecticide, the more likely you are to uncover and promote the growth of a new strain of insects that’s resistant to your insect killer. It has happened with one insecticide after another over the decades. Eventually, scientists said, the same thing would happen to a crop that carries its own insecticide. Covering fields with Bt crops would lead to a strain of insects that the crops didn’t kill.

So university researchers and federal regulators came up with a strategy to preserve Bt’s effectiveness. First of all, they said Bt crops (mainly corn and cotton) should be extremely effective. Ideally, they would kill 99.99 percent of all the target insects that fed on them.

And for those rare insects that survived, regulators came up with a second line of defense, to prevent resistant insects from mating and producing lots of resistant offspring. Farmers who grew Bt corn (or cotton) were required to grow non-Bt crops on some of their farm, as a “refuge” for normal insects. That way, the rare, surviving, resistant insects would probably find non-resistant mates, instead of each other, and their offspring still would (likely) be killed by the Bt corn.

To the surprise of some environmentalists, the strategy has worked. There’s no evidence that the European corn borer has evolved resistance to the Bt toxin. The same goes for some insects that feed on cotton, such as the pink bollworm — at least in the United States.

(more…)

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Published on Monday, August 29, 2011 by The Wall Street Journal

Monsanto Corn Plant Losing Bug Resistance
by Scott Kilman
http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/08/29-4

Widely grown corn plants that Monsanto Co. genetically modified to thwart a voracious bug are falling prey to that very pest in a few Iowa fields, the first time a major Midwest scourge has developed resistance to a genetically modified crop.

Corn earworm larva feasting on a corn ear. Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann’s discovery that western corn rootworms in four northeast Iowa fields have evolved to resist the natural pesticide made by Monsanto’s corn plant could encourage some farmers to switch to insect-proof seeds sold by competitors of the St. Louis crop biotechnology giant, and to return to spraying harsher synthetic insecticides on their fields.
The discovery raises concerns that the way some farmers are using biotech crops could spawn superbugs.

Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann’s discovery that western corn rootworms in four northeast Iowa fields have evolved to resist the natural pesticide made by Monsanto’s corn plant could encourage some farmers to switch to insect-proof seeds sold by competitors of the St. Louis crop biotechnology giant, and to return to spraying harsher synthetic insecticides on their fields.

“These are isolated cases, and it isn’t clear how widespread the problem will become,” said Dr. Gassmann in an interview. “But it is an early warning that management practices need to change.”

The finding adds fuel to the race among crop biotechnology rivals to locate the next generation of genes that can protect plants from insects. Scientists at Monsanto andSyngenta AG of Basel, Switzerland, are already researching how to use a medical breakthrough called RNA interference to, among other things, make crops deadly for insects to eat. If this works, a bug munching on such a plant could ingest genetic code that turns off one of its essential genes.

Monsanto said its rootworm-resistant corn seed lines are working as it expected “on more than 99% of the acres planted with this technology” and that it is too early to know what the Iowa State University study means for farmers.

The discovery comes amid a debate about whether the genetically modified crops that now saturate the Farm Belt are changing how some farmers operate in undesirable ways.

These insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops make farming so much easier that many growers rely heavily on the technology, violating a basic tenet of pest management, which warns that using one method year after year gives more opportunity for pests to adapt.

Monsanto is already at the center of this issue because of its success since the 1990s marketing seeds that grow into crops that can survive exposure to its Roundup herbicide, a glyphosate-based chemical known for its ability to kill almost anything green.

These seeds made it so convenient for farmers to spray Roundup that many farmers stopped using other weedkillers. As a result, say many scientists, superweeds immune to Roundup have spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the South and Midwest.

Monsanto became the first company to sell rootworm-resistant biotech corn to farmers in 2003. The seed contains a gene from a common soil microorganism called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, from which crop biotechnology has been used to mine several genes for making insecticidal proteins.

One of the genes Monsanto developed makes a crystalline protein called Cry3Bb1. It rips apart the gut of the rootworm but is harmless to mammals, birds and most beneficial insects. Competitors, which use other Bt genes to attack the rootworm, estimate that roughly one-third of the corn grown in the U.S. carries Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 gene.

Monsanto said it generated world-wide sales of $4.26 billion from corn seed and biotechnology traits, about 40% of its overall sales, in its last full year.

Until insecticide-producing corn plants arrived, Midwest farmers typically tried to keep pests like the corn borer and the rootworm in check by changing what they grew in a field each year, often rotating between corn and soybeans. That way, the offspring of corn-loving insects would starve the next year.

Some farmers began to plant corn in the same field year after year. The financial incentive to grow corn has increased in recent years in part because the ethanol-fuel industry’s exploding appetite for corn has helped to lift prices to very profitable levels for growers.

According to Dr. Gassmann, the Iowa fields in which he found rootworms resistant to the Cry3Bb1 toxin had been producing Monsanto’s Bt-expressing corn continuously for at least three years. Dr. Gassmann collected rootworm beetles from four Iowa cornfields with plant damage in 2009. Their larvae were then fed corn containing Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 toxin. They had a survival rate three times that of control larvae that ate the same corn.

Dr. Gassmann found that Monsanto’s Bt toxin still had some lethal impact on the larvae from the problem Iowa fields, and that the bugs were still highly susceptible to a rootworm-resistant corn plant from a competitor that uses a different Bt toxin, called Cry34/35Ab1.

Scientists in other Farm Belt states are also looking for signs that Monsanto’s Bt corn might be losing its effectiveness. Mike Gray, a University of Illinois entomologist, said he is studying rootworm beetles he collected in northwest Illinois earlier this month from fields where Monsanto’s Bt-expressing corn had suffered extensive rootworm damage.

The government requires that farmers who plant the genetically modified corn take certain steps aimed at preventing insects from developing resistance. Farmers are told to create a refuge for the bugs by planting non-modified corn in part of their fields. The refuge, which can be as much as 20% of a farmer’s field, is supposed to reduce the chances that two toxin-resistant bugs mate and pass along that trait to their offspring.

Dr. Gray said the confirmation of toxin-resistant rootworms in Iowa could force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revisit its policy of allowing the size of these insect refuges to shrink to as little as 5% of a cornfield as crop biotechnology companies begin to sell seed for corn plants that can make two different rootworm-killing toxins.

Part of what has attracted some farmers to Monsanto’s new SmartStax corn line is that it allows them to plant a smaller refuge. But one of the two anti-rootworm toxins in that variety is the Cry3Bb1 protein at the center of Dr. Gassmann’s study.

The EPA said it is too early to comment on any implications arising from Dr. Gassmann’s paper.

© 2011 The Wall Street Journal

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – May 24, 2011 – Today, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) was informed by Assemblymember Huffman’s office that they have decided to hold AB 88—the California bill which would require that all genetically engineered (GE) fish sold in California contain clear and prominent labeling—as a 2-year bill. This means it will not be up for a second vote in the Appropriations Committee this week and will instead be held until next year when it will go through the committee process again. This will give CFS and other organizations working on the bill more time to educate California legislators about the importance of this bill and its role in protecting consumer’s right to know how they’re food is produced.

read more from the Center for Food Safety’s website:

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WASHINGTON, DC – North America’s largest consumer advocacy organization, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which represents over 850,000 consumers, announced last month a new campaign to oppose the name change of the fair trade certifier TransFair USA to “Fair Trade USA”. TransFair has applied for the new name to be trademarked, along with the term “Fair Trade Certified”. As the certifier that works with major brands such as Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s, it is in effect an attempt to legally claim, as an exclusive brand, a term that encompasses a broad movement that extends far beyond the work of TransFair.

“Since our campaign began two weeks ago, more than 9,900 conscious consumers across the United States have sent letters to TransFair USA opposing their name change to ‘Fair Trade USA,” says OCA Executive Director Ronnie Cummins. “TransFair’s response pitifully claims that the new name is ‘popular’ even as they get strong evidence of a revolt by consumer stakeholders that see the new name as yet another step by TransFair to co-opt and corporatize the Fair Trade movement.”

Read more and sign the petition.

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Last week President Obama and Secretary Vilsack approved Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa despite overwhelming public protest. This move fundamentally undermines the organic industry, especially organic meat and dairy. In approving GMO alfalfa the Obama administration has caved to Monsanto and made it harder for family farmers to make a living and for consumers wanting to eat safe, healthy foods.

This decision is a devastating blow to our democracy and the basic rights of farmers to choose how they want to grow food on their land and protect the rights of consumers who are increasingly buying organic and sustainably grown food for its positive health and environmental impacts. Please join us in telling President Obama that you’re deeply disappointed in his decision and want a ban on GMO alfalfa.

 

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Our search for rootedness has brought us back to the Philippines, back to communities in the south where Robin spent a year over three decades ago.

We spend time with the family of a rice farmer, Delia, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Delia, her husband Romulo, two daughters, one son, and three grandchildren live in a simple but roomy house on the edge of their rice field. Behind the house is a tilapia-filled fish pond with papaya trees growing on one side. A few pigs are housed by the fish pond, and fifteen chickens have free range of the property. Vitamin-rich greens grow at the far edge of the pond, and two towering jackfruit trees provide shade as well as ingredients for delicious meals. Theirs is an example of what we call a “rooted” life; among other things, they eat mainly what they grow and raise.

Read the rest of this article.

 

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Let It Burn

“A fabulous Easter gift,” commented Monsanto Director of Development Initiatives Elizabeth Vancil. Nearly 60,000 seed sacks of hybrid corn seeds and other vegetable seeds were donated to post-earthquake Haiti by Monsanto. In observance of World Environment Day, June 4, 2010, roughly 10,000 rural Haitian farmers gathered in Papaye to march seven kilometers to Hinche in celebration of this gift. Upon arrival, these rewarded farmers took their collective Easter baskets of more than 400 tons of vegetable seeds and burned them all.[i] “Long live the native maize seed!” they chanted in unison. “Monsanto’s GMO [genetically modified organism] & hybrid seed violate peasant agriculture!”

According to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, coordinator of the Papay Peasant Movement (MPP), “there is presently a shortage of seed in Haiti because many rural families used their maize seed to feed refugees.”[ii] Like any benevolent disaster capitalist corporation, Monsanto extended a hand in a time of crisis to the 65 percent of the population that survives off of subsistence agriculture. But not just any hand was extended in this time of great need, rather: a fistful of seeds. The extended fist was full of corn seeds, one of Haiti’s staple crops, treated with the fungicide Maxim XO. With similar benevolence, not just any tomato seeds were donated to the agrarian peasants, but tomato seeds treated with Thiram, a chemical so toxic the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled it too toxic to sell for home garden use, further mandating that any agricultural worker planting these seeds must wear special protective clothing.[iii] Happy Easter! Monsanto’s web site’s official explanation for this toxic donation is that “fungicidal seed treatments are often applied to seeds prior to planting to protect them from fungal diseases that arise in the soil and hamper the plant’s ability to germinate and grow. The treatments also provide protection against diseases the seed might pick up in transfer between countries.”[iv] However, according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, “repeated exposure [to Thiram] can affect the kidneys, liver and thyroid gland. High or repeated exposure may damage the nerves.”[v]Why would Monsanto be so eager to donate seeds that could potentially compromise the health of so many famished people?

 

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