Monsanto's BT corn reported failing in several states
2.Corn pest worries region's farmers; rootworm adapts to resistant plant
3.Monsanto biotech corn not killing pests, research finds
EXTRACTS: Scientists sounded the alarm years ago, but now their predictions appear to be an encroaching reality: Monsanto's biotech corn is showing signs, they say, that it no longer repels the pests it is engineered to kill. (item 3)
Reports of rootworm resistance have grown in number for several years. But the first scientific confirmation of the problem came a month ago, in an Iowa State University study. (item 2)
"Whatever is the cause, it is generating a lot of concern." [Michael Gray, an agricultural entomologist at the University of Illinois] said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn’t say at this point it’s just an isolated field here or there."
"It's very, very significant damage," Gray said. “Producers buy these Bt hybrids to protect their root systems, so it understandably makes them not very happy." (item 1)
Farmers in a broad stretch of the corn belt are telling seed companies and others about unusual amounts of corn rootworm damage they're finding this summer.
The corn's genetic modification produces a protein that until recently was deadly to the pest. But in half a dozen states stretching from Illinois to South Dakota farmers may now face a bug that can survive after eating the normally fatal protein. (item 2)
1.Monsanto Corn Falls to Illinois Bugs as Investigation Widens
Bloomberg, September 2 2011
Monsanto Co's insect-killing corn is toppling over in northwestern Illinois fields, a sign that rootworms outside of Iowa may have developed resistance to the genetically modified crop, according to one scientist.
Michael Gray, an agricultural entomologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana, said he’s studying whether western corn rootworms collected last month in Henry and Whiteside counties are resistant to an insect-killing protein derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a natural insecticide engineered into Monsanto corn.
The insects were collected in two fields where corn had toppled after roots were eaten by rootworms, Gray said today. Planting Bt corn year after year increases the odds that the bugs will develop resistance to the insecticide, he said. While the symptoms parallel bug resistance that’s been confirmed in Iowa, analysis of the Illinois insects won’t be complete until next year, he said.
"Whatever is the cause, it is generating a lot of concern." Gray said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn’t say at this point it’s just an isolated field here or there."
Monsanto takes reports like Gray's "seriously" and follows up on all accounts of unexpected damage and other performance questions, said Lee Quarles, a spokesman for the St. Louis-based company. Monsanto's monitoring hasn't found rootworm resistance to its Bt corn and the product is performing well on more than 99 percent of acres planted, he said.
Monsanto dropped $3.13, or 4.5 percent, to $65.80 as of 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have fallen 5.5 percent this year.
Gray detailed his preliminary findings last week in the university’s Pest Management and Crop Development Bulletin. He said he's since been contacted by more farmers whose Bt corn is succumbing to corn rootworms.
"It's very, very significant damage," Gray said. “Producers buy these Bt hybrids to protect their root systems, so it understandably makes them not very happy."
In July, Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann reported the first rootworms confirmed as being Bt-resistant, which he found in four of the state’s cornfields.
Gray advised growers with performance problems to rotate corn crops with soybeans and to plant corn with a different type of Bt technology.
Monsanto's SmartStax corn introduced last year is engineered to produce a second Bt insecticide that, when used with crop rotation and a refuge of non-Bt corn, will extend the usefulness of the insect-fighting technology, Quarles said.
2.Corn pest worries region's farmers; rootworm adapts to resistant plant
Minnesota Public Radio News, September 4 2011
Seed companies and federal regulators are studying reports that a major corn pest has apparently outsmarted a line of genetically modified corn.
The plant is designed to kill a bug called the corn rootworm, but in several Midwest states, including Minnesota, it looks like the corn is losing its effectiveness.
Many farmers consider the worm-like larvae of the corn rootworm beetle corn's No. 1 enemy. In a state like Minnesota, with a roughly $7 billion corn crop, the rootworm commands attention.
Farmers in a broad stretch of the corn belt are telling seed companies and others about unusual amounts of corn rootworm damage they're finding this summer. One of the people they're calling is University of Minnesota entomologist Ken Ostlie.
Ostlie spent a recent afternoon digging up corn plants in a southern Minnesota field. He doesn't like what he saw.
"Basically we found that there is a significant amount of corn rootworm feeding in the field, indicating that (rootworm) populations have built up," Ostlie said.
The bug's larvae loves corn roots. If enough roots are destroyed, plants can't stand up and they tip over, something Ostlie saw in the field.
The affected type of corn has been sold since 2003 by Monsanto, the nation's leading seller of genetically modified corn seed. The corn's genetic modification produces a protein that until recently was deadly to the pest.
But in half a dozen states stretching from Illinois to South Dakota farmers may now face a bug that can survive after eating the normally fatal protein.
"Somewhere in here, the rootworm has adapted to that trait," Ostlie said.
Exactly how the pest adapted is unknown, but it's not surprising. The corn rootworm has amazed scientists with its adaptability. It's evolved to become immune to certain insecticides and crop rotation practices that kept it at bay. Now it's apparently conquering genetically modified corn.
"I'm not pleased to see that we have the resistance evolving," said Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "That shows that we might begin losing the benefits of this technology."
Reports of rootworm resistance have grown in number for several years. But the first scientific confirmation of the problem came a month ago, in an Iowa State University study.
So far, only Monsanto's corn is implicated.
The findings did not surprise Jaffe, who supports genetically modified corn because it reduces the amount of insecticides farmers spray on their fields. In research he published a few years ago, he warned of coming problems.
His report showed a declining number of farmers complying with contractual obligations with Monsanto and other seed companies – measures designed to forestall rootworm resistance to the protein.
The problem Jaffe found was that fewer farmers were planting what are called "refuges," fields of nongenetically modified corn. Corn prices more than doubled over Jaffe's study period and, at least on paper, farmers had an incentive to skip the refuge fields and devote more land to the higher-yielding genetically modified corn.
To obtain the seed, farmers had to agree to plan a fifth of their acreage with regular corn. The goal is to dilute the population of resistant bugs and make it harder for them to pass on their resistance to the next generation of rootworms. Jaffe found only three-quarters of farmers were following the refuge requirement by 2008 – down from about 90 percent in 2003.
Jaffe said it's not known whether the decline in refuge promoted the growth of resistant varieties. But he said the federal Environmental Protection Agency will have to make a decision about just how serious a threat the resistant rootworms are.
"If in fact this is widespread, then EPA should use all those tools that it has available to it, including restricting sales in locations that may have high levels of resistance to prevent that from spreading," Jaffe said.
Monsanto is sure to fight any sales restrictions. Company officials have said little, other than calling rootworm issues a fairly limited problem. They also say the company has new lines of corn that will kill any insects found to be resistant.
Monsanto might address the subject more thoroughly at an investor conference this week. Meanwhile, EPA officials will only say that the agency is studying the issue.
When farmers start harvesting corn this month, they'll be on the lookout for unusual rootworm damage. Their observations should help clarify the extent of rootworm resistance to genetically modified corn.
3.Monsanto biotech corn not killing pests, research finds
St Louis Post Dispatch, September 2 2011
Scientists sounded the alarm years ago, but now their predictions appear to be an encroaching reality: Monsanto's biotech corn is showing signs, they say, that it no longer repels the pests it is engineered to kill.
Last month, researchers from Iowa State University published a study showing that the western corn rootworm – a major crop pest and yield-reducer – is surviving after ingesting an insecticidal toxin produced by the corn plants. A University of Illinois professor says he believes the same thing could be happening in fields in northwestern Illinois.
The problem, if it spreads, could mean that farmers will lose a critical tool in managing pests – and the Creve Coeur-based biotech and seed giant could lose ground on a profitable technology.
The corn, which Monsanto launched in 2003, is engineered to produce a protein, known as Cry3Bb1, derived from a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. The rootworms ingest the roots of this "Bt corn," as it's referred to in the industry, and the protein is fatal.
But the Iowa team determined that in some fields with heavy populations of rootworm the Bt corn was not killing the rootworm. The study, the scientists said, is the first report of resistance to the toxin in the field, but more are probably on the way, some scientists believe.
"I think there is the potential for more problems to surface," said Mike Gray, an entomologist with the University of Illinois who is studying rootworm damage in northwestern Illinois fields. "These Bt hybrids are grown very widely."
However, Monsanto said that the problem did not amount to "resistance" and added that it was confined to as little as 10,000 acres in certain "hot spots."
"Our Cry3Bb1 protein is effective, and we don't have any demonstrated field resistance," said Dusty Post, who heads Monsanto's corn technology efforts. "We do have some performance inquiries in those counties where there's a high level of insect pressure, but it's no greater now than it's been."
Still, Post said, "We do take this very seriously. The durability of the technology is not only important to the company, it's important to farmers."
Monsanto first launched a Bt corn in the 1990s that was engineered to kill the European corn borer. Its corn rootworm variety hit the market in 2003 and was widely embraced by corn growers who were spending $1 billion a year on rootworm pesticides.
Like its predecessors, the variety was approved by regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency gave the green light to the corn only if farmers agreed to certain growing conditions, among them the requirement to plant non-Bt "refuge" corn on 20 percent of their Bt corn acres.
This, the agency maintained, would limit potential resistance to the protein by, in effect, ensuring that the insects can multiply and dilute the resistance genes in their offspring.
But scientists sitting on a scientific review board before the approval later complained that the agency ignored their recommendations and caved to the company's demands for a 20 percent refuge.
They said farmers should instead have been required to plant 50 percent non-Bt corn.
The failure to listen to the review board, critics say, is largely responsible for the evidence of growing resistance.
'Everybody was fudging'
Critics also point out that monitoring farms for compliance with the refuge requirements has been lax and even nonexistent.
"Everybody was fudging, and no one was looking," said Brett Lorenzen, of the Environmental Working Group, another group that monitors agriculture. "It's been a major concern."
Making things worse, critics say, was the boom in demand for corn-based ethanol and high corn prices, which have lured farmers into growing practices that encourage resistance. Before Bt-corn, farmers would rotate crops to discourage the rootworm from reproducing. But the new variety meant they didn't have to.
"Continual corn planting favors buildup of bigger, more damaging rootworm populations over years," explained Bill Freese, of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group that has been highly critical of genetically engineered crops. "Monsanto's Bt corn helped make more corn-on-corn possible, by freeing farmers from the need to rotate to combat this pest. But as we now see, that 'solution' was short-lived."
Corn rootworm has proved, historically, to be adept at evolving, and scientists have said it was only a matter of time before it evolved to resist the protein in Bt corn.
"When you ratchet up the selection pressure, using the same practice over and over again, eventually the western corn rootworm has a way of evolving," Gray said. "It's not surprising."
Monsanto, however, released its SmartStax corn last year, which contains two proteins to combat rootworm. The EPA ruled that farmers who plant that variety need to create only a 5-percent refuge because the two proteins mean the rootworm will be less prone to resistance.
That has some entomologists worried, given the speedy evolution of resistance over the past several years to the Cry3Bb1 protein.
"The EPA is going to have to think this over very carefully," Gray said.