Science & Technology

Accused of Being a Monsanto Propagandist, I Am Asked to Explain Evolving Pesticide Resistance



Reporting and commenting at the intersection of science and public policy garners one some amusing emails. Today, I received one with the subject line: GMO Failure. My email correspondent (whom I will spare naming) wrote:

Mr. Barton,

Since you are employed by the Monsanto propaganda department, how exactly are you going to spin this latest finding?


Barton/Bailey? Same difference. Employed by the Monsanto propaganda department? Really?

For some people, employment suggests a transfer of funds. However, I just checked with the fundraising folks at the non-profit Reason Foundation that publishes this website and Reason magazine, and they tell me that Monsanto has never given us a dime.

In any case, I clicked on the link so helpfully provided to find a strategically redacted St. Louis Post-Dispatch article at the website Truth Alliance. The Truth Alliance appears to be dedicated to "bringing down the power structures of the New World Order (N.W.O.)"

But let's set that aside, and focus on the redactions and added commentary. The original August 28 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article notes that a couple of entomologists have apparently encountered an infestation of rootworms in fields of biotech corn created by Monsanto to resist those pests. This is, of course, bad news for farmers.

By citing the Truth Alliance blog version, my correspondent seems to be implying that pests evolving resistance to biotech crops is somehow an indictment of the whole enterprise. What he does not realize is that researchers have documented for decades the evolution of pests resistant to conventional and organic insecticides and herbicides. It's basic natural selection at work.

Consider, for example, the 1984 article, "History, evolution, and consequences of insecticide resistance," in the journal Pesticide Biochemistry and Physiology. I will point out that first commercial biotech corn was planted in 1996, that is, 12 years after this article appeared. From the abstract:

The first inkling of what the future held with respect to pesticide resistance of arthropods may be found in 1897 writings concerning control difficulties with San Jose Scale (Quadraspidiotus perniciosus (Comstock)) and codling moth (Laspeyresia pomonella (L.)). Eighty-three years later, the ever-growing list of resistant species involved 14 orders and 83 families, and numbered 428 different insects and acarines, of which 61% are of agricultural importance and the remainder of medical/veterinary concern. The impact of this has been felt throughout the world, wherever insecticides are used, in terms of increased vector-borne disease, increased pesticide hazards in the environment, crop losses and poorer quality of products, increased production costs, pest resurgences and rise of secondary pests, and various socioeconomic repercussions.

So what to do to address the emerging pesticide resistance problem? The St.Louis Post-Dispatch article notes that the two entomologists…

…say that growers will have to switch to a product that has "multiple modes of action" against corn rootworm — such as Monsanto's Genuity SmartStax (link added) line, which kills the worms with an additional protein.

In other words, continue to use scientific discoveries and human ingenuity to address the perpetual problem of crop destroying insects evolving pesticide resistance.

The Truth Alliance glosses the observation that farmers may have to switch pest resistant crop varieties as "farmers will have to switch to a less natural, more heavily genetically modified product." "Less natural" = evil?

In fact, researchers well before the advent of the biotech crop era had devised various strategies for slowing down the evolution of pesticide resistance in insects. For example, a 1989 article, "The Evolution of Insecticide Resistance: Have the Insects Won?," in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution noted:

A mixture of insecticides … can delay the evolution of resistance by several orders of magnitude compared with a rotation.  Mixtures work because insects that receive a lethal dose of one insecticide are simultaneously dosed with the other insecticide as well. Only extremely rare individual pests, which have resistance mechanisms against both chemicals, will survive. With a reservoir of untreated insects or immigration, random mating and recombination tend to break up the doubly resistant genotypes, leading to very slow evolution of resistance.

This is precisely the strategy that Monsanto plant breeders have used to create Genuity SmartStax crop varieties. The new Monsanto Genuity corn variety incorporates six different genes aimed at controlling insect pests plus two for herbicide resistance. In addition, the company is developing Geunity varieties that are drought resistant and use less fertilizer.

So that's how I "spin" it – I use scientific data, not lies and disinformation.