GM Corn Creating New Super-Pests?

Opponents of genetically modified crops have long warned of “super-weeds.”

These weeds evolve from regular weeds on fields where herbicides are sprayed in particularly heavy doses.  Because much of the U.S.’s genetically modified crops are genetically engineered to survive heavy applications of particular herbicides that obliterate weeds but leave the GM crops themselves standing, the fields where they’re planted see the application of the same herbicides (in most cases, Monsanto’s Roundup) year after year.

And because the crops themselves are completely resistant to these herbicides, farmers tend to spray more of these herbicides than strictly necessary, because there’s little concern that overdoing it will harm the crops themselves.

Roundup

A blessing? A curse?

But one problem with this frequent, heavy application of the same herbicides year after year is that “super weeds” have developed that are resistant to these particular herbicides.  And because Roundup no longer kills all the weeds, the farmers follow up the already-heavy doses of Roundup with additional doses of other herbicides to kill off the super-weeds.  Critics of this system fear that in order to continue it will require more and more herbicides to kill stronger and stronger weeds.

It’s a painful cycle that leads in the long run to the spraying of far more chemicals on our fields.  These chemicals harm agricultural workers and end up in consumers’ bodies and our children’s bodies.  While scientists are still working to confirm the many possible long-term effects these pesticide residues have in our bodies, they surely aren’t making us healthier.

Now GM farmers have a new concern: super-bugs.  New strains of genetically modified corn have been engineered to resist western corn rootworms, which can otherwise eat away at the roots of corn stalks, compromising the ultimate crop.  But these bugs are starting to adapt, and develop their own resistance to the bug-resistant corn.  So we’ve made little progress in battling these bugs, and in the process made them even stronger.

I’m skeptical generally of the extent to which the United States has permitted the growth and use of genetically modified crops.  I have no problem with experimenting on crops and developing new strains through modern technology.  These strains could ultimately help us to better survive droughts, better feed a growing world population, grow food more cheaply and battle pests without using so many pesticides.

And in Monsanto’s defense, I’m not sure that these “super-bugs” Monsanto may be creating are any worse for our crops than the originals the new corn was engineered to resist; if the super-bugs’ only super-power is to resist Monsanto’s bug-resistant crops, then we’re really just back where we started–and no worse off.

What’s more, the farmers who are creating these super-bugs are doing so by planting the bug-resistant corn year after year–something Monsanto tells them not to do for just that reason.  While Monsanto should do what it can to prevent this practice, these things are not entirely within Monsanto’s control, and allowing these practices to continue only hurts Monsanto itself if it renders the product ineffective.  Certainly Monsanto itself would like to stop this practice.

But the development of these bugs does highlight many long-standing concerns over genetically modified crops.  For one, I’m not convinced that they’re helping us very much.  Touted as a way to reduce herbicide use, there’s evidence that (courtesy in part to the development of “super-weeds”) they’ve actually increased it.  Touted as a way to reduce soil erosion, they may well have magnified that as well.  And touted as a way better to feed the world, they seem mostly to have served only as a way for Monsanto to sell more of its own herbicides.  The genetic modifications don’t, for the most part, create larger, faster-growing or heartier plants, but rather plants that can survive heavy applications of Roundup.

And the new super-bugs highlight that for each step scientists take to change nature, and to prevent people from engaging in self-defeating practices, nature or human nature seem to fight back.  Ultimately, I think there’s room for improving our lot with GM foods.  But in the near term, there are so many uncertainties, both for the environment, for food production, and for the health consequences of eating these foods, that I’m not sure how we can justify allowing genetically modified crops into our grocery stores, as we do today, without their even being labeled.

If you eat processed food, you are almost certainly eating genetically modified food.  And there’s a good chance many of you didn’t even know that.  GM food may be perfectly healthy for us.  But it may not, and while scientific evidence has yet to find unquestionable evidence of profound harm, certain animal and human studies raise concerns.

These concerns may never amount to much.  But if they do, we may regret having tested them on the entire American population all at the same time.  We’re making an all-or-nothing bet that these new, untested technologies won’t hurt us.  Maybe, like automobiles and microwave ovens, they won’t.  Maybe, like DDT or thalidomide, they will.  There’s little harm in testing these things out.  But there could be great harm in testing these things out on all of us, at the same time.

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