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Mass Cultivation of Bt Corn Creates New Pest Problem

(Beyond Pesticides, April 14, 2010) A new report shows that the large-scale cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) corn is causing the spread of a new pest in the US Corn Belt. The report, “The spread of the western bean cutworm causes massive damage in the US” published by Testbiotech for Greenpeace Germany finds that GE corn plants in the U.S. that have been genetically modified to express the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin classified as Cry1Ab are being infested by the larvae of the western bean cutworm (Striacosta albicosta).

According to Testbiotech, a research based non-profit organization operating out of Germany, this new pest has been caused by the large-scale cultivation of genetically engineered plants expressing Cry1Ab such as MON810 (sold as YieldGard by company of Monsanto). The infestation has been observed since 2000, and the western bean cutworm is emerging as a new plant pest. Historically, this species of cutworm has been confined to very limited regions and did not cause any major problems in maize crops. However, for the past several years the pest has been spreading into more and more regions within the US Corn Belt causing substantial economic damage. Maize plants affected by the western bean cutworm were even found in Canada in 2009 for the first time.

Reports have historically provided significant documentation of herbicide-resistant weeds and insect resistance developing as a result of heavy reliance on the chemicals crops are bred to tolerate. This is seen as a classic case of ‘pest replacement,’ often found where there is extensive use of pesticides in industrial agriculture. Pest replacement means that new ecological niches open up which other competitors then occupy. In this case, a naturally occurring competitor of the western bean cutworm has been intentionally suppressed by the extensive cultivation of Bt maize plants, thus allowing the new pest to spread on a large scale and heavily infest the crop. A whole arsenal of insecticides – some of them highly toxic – and genetically engineered multi-stacked maize are recommended for controlling the pest. These so-called solutions such as “Herculex”1 or “SmartStax” can however substantially add to the problem or cause even new ecological risks.

“Several reports show that the damage is increasing from year to year,” explains Christoph Then, executive director of Testbiotech and author of the report. “But not much information is given to the farmers about the causes. The agrochemical companies are mainly interested in using this as an opportunity to sell other genetically engineered corn and insecticides that are highly toxic.”

Testbiotech analysed many reports on the spread of the western bean cutworm and exchanged opinions with several experts. The cause of the spread of the new pest is hardly known to farmers in US, despite the fact that the western bean cutworm has spread through the whole Corn Belt since the year 2000. Farmers have only been told how to identify infestation and which insecticides they can use. No warnings were given on the dangers of large- scale MON810 cultivation. Instead, companies like Monsanto are trying to sell new varieties of genetically engineered corn such as ‘SmartStax’ that produces six different insecticides in its plant tissue.

Martin Hofstetter of Greenpeace, Germany, the organization that commissioned the report, summed up the report: “There is a race going on in the fields which will lead to an increasing use of insecticides and the cultivation of more and more genetically engineered plants. There is a huge risk of causing ecological damage. Farmers are likely to lose the race by being forced to invest more and more in chemicals and high priced seed without being able to increase their yields. Industry’s solution doesn’t appear to be either sustainable or ecologically sound. It will just foster extremely industrialized agriculture.”

Testbiotech presented the report at an international conference, “Second International Conference on Implications of GM Crop Cultivation at Large Spatial Scales,” in Bremen, Germany in March.

Beyond Pesticides believes that whether it is the incorporation into food crops of genes from a natural bacterium (Bt) or the development of a herbicide-resistant crop, the GE approach to pest management is short sighted and dangerous. There are serious public health and pest resistance problems associated with GE crops. Beyond Pesticides’ goal is to push for labeling as a means of identifying products that contain GE ingredients, seek to educate on the public health and environmental consequences of this technology and generate support for sound ecological-based management systems.

For more information on GE crops please see Beyond Pesticides page on Genetic Engineering.


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