WikiLeaks and the Monsanto GMO Cable

In amongst the cables released to WikiLeaks is one from 2007, in which Craig Stapleton, then U.S. Ambassador to France, suggested a “plan of retaliation” against the EU, and France in particular, unless the European nations agreed to purchase and plant Monsanto’s MON-810 Bt corn seed. The Ambassador lamented,

“In our view, Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue with France playing a leading role, along with Austria, Italy and even the Commission. In France, the “Grenelle”environment process is being implemented to circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest.””

Well, now, we can’t have all these governments giving way to the “common interest”, can we? Never mind that the European food manufacturers themselves, other than feedlots, were already refusing to use GMO-based products due to proclaimed customer preferences. Not to mention, why the particular favoritism toward Monsanto, when Novartis Seeds, Mycogen Seeds and DEKALB Genetics also are major producers of Bt corn? Finally, why is an ambassador involved in promoting American food products? The USDA has highly competent staff in key locations around the world ready to assist U.S. food companies in making favorable contacts to increase offshore sales. I know, because I’ve dealt with them, and the staffers are excellent.

But let’s back up a bit and review the European corn borer, GMOs and Bt.

European Corn Borer

Tunneling European corn borer image courtesy of Iowa State University

The European corn borer is an introduced pest, meaning it is not native to the U.S. Scientists believe that it may have been brought to this country in the early 1900s in broom corn, imported from Hungary and Italy, used to manufacture brooms. During its early history, the borer only produced one generation per year; today, only the most northern states and Canada can expect to see one generation per year. In the central U.S.—the main area of corn growing—there are two generations per year, while the South and its border states can expect three generations per year. In the Deep South, growers can be looking at four generations per year. Clearly, insect management of this pest can be time consuming and expensive. Also, in spite of its name, the borer attacks sorghum, cotton and many vegetables.

Field damage from European corn borer image courtesy of Iowa State University

There are at least half a dozen serious insect pests of corn (or maize, as it’s known scientifically), although the extent of pest infiltration can vary by geographic region, but the European corn borer is one of the most prevalent. As with all insects, climate conditions can affect populations from year to year. An eight year study in southern Minnesota, from 1988-1995, showed five years with low corn borer populations and three years with high populations. During the peak outbreak years, GMO corn fared much better than corn treated with insecticides. The Minnesota study indicated substantial economic benefit to farmers using GMOs during the peak infestation years. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t yet developed a method to determine pest populations in advance of the growing season, in order to allow farmers to make an economically effective seed purchasing decision. Additionally, cultural practices can affect borer populations. Fields grown to corn are rarely disked (plowed under) in the fall anymore, since agricultural entomologists have shown that exposure of the stalks to winter weather and foraging animals significantly reduces the number of potential pests the following spring.

There are cultural practices and biological predators that can be used to tackle the European corn borer as part of an integrated pest management program, but these take knowledge, time and long term planning, not to mention money. For further reading, I highly recommend this publication by Iowa State University.

GMOs

GMO is the acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. In truth, very few farms in the U.S. or Europe don’t use some form of genetically modified seeds:  those seeds are called hybrids, and they’ve been around for a long time, both in horticultural and agricultural production. Hybrids are responsible for super-sweet corn, for grass that doesn’t need to be mowed more than once a month, for carrots that are extra sweet so that baby food manufacturers don’t have to add unnecessary sugar, and for virtually every annual geranium that can be grown from seed. Hybridization has been used to improve vigor, productivity and natural resistance to pests. In other words, plant breeders have achieved some significant improvements in the plants we grow, helping to meet the increased food needs of a growing world population. Today, breeders are working to develop strains that can be grown in less agriculturally friendly environments, so that African farmers, for example, will need far less water to grow their crops. These are all the positives of genetically modified seeds.

What are some of the negatives? Well, unlike open-pollinated seeds, hybrid seed is only good for one generation. In other words, if you want to grow the very same corn next year, for example, you have to buy new seed; seed collected from the plants themselves will not be true to type. For a big farm co-op, or even for an individual farmer in developed countries, this is simply part of the cost of doing business. But if you’re a subsistence farmer in the developing world, even though the hybrid might drastically improve your yields, if you can’t afford the more expensive seed to begin with, its benefits don’t matter much. There is also concern with GMO cross-pollination, in those species that are not self-fertile. Again, to a large co-op, with a monoculture crop, that has removed every twig or blade of grass within miles of its farms, there isn’t much worry about cross-pollination. There’s also little concern about perimeter weeds that can serve as vectors for disease. However, there is also no location where natural predators can thrive and breed, so these large co-ops become captives to chemical pest control.

Then we come to the newest hybrids, known as GMOs. These are not simply hybrids of the healthiest or tastiest stock, these are creations designed to incorporate chemicals into the gene coding of the seed in order to resist pests or broad spectrum herbicide applications, which may be why their use in food production has led to the derogatory term, “Frankenfoods”. There are a number of different GMOs, but I’m only going to focus on those that incorporate Bt.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)

Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium primarily found in soil. It was first registered as an insecticide in 1961 and re-registered in 1998. As measured by its oral LD50 (the amount of substance that will kill 50% of the tested population), it is extremely safe. Bt can cause skin rashes, and while some claim to be allergic to the insecticide, it is more likely that dermal exposure to the powder creates the negative reaction. There is almost no movement of Bt within soil, so run-off into water systems isn’t a particular danger. Bt has a half-life of about two weeks, although it can be degraded more rapidly by sunlight. It is not toxic to fish, birds, or any other non-caterpillar insect. Human volunteers have actually consumed 1 gram of Bt per day for 5 days straight with no ill effects.

Bt has several different strains and is insect specific. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis is used to kill mosquito larvae, while Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki  is the most effective against caterpillars (larvae) of moths. Bt forms crystal proteins (Cry proteins), that, once ingested, latch onto receptors in the insect’s digestive system and release a toxin that causes death within a matter of days. Bt must be ingested to be effective, and it can only be used against the larval stage of the insect (the most active feeding time anyway during the insect’s lifecycle). It is most often used as a powder application for best plant coverage, although it also comes in a suspension form.

Since Bt is an organism, and not a chemical, it is generally recognized as acceptable for use by organic grower certification societies around the world. (There are no national standards for organic production yet, so most organic growers rely on certification guidelines issued by the various organizations to indicate the agricultural practices they follow.) So if Bt is so safe, why are those pesky Europeans complaining about GMO corn? Let’s look at some of the reasons that Europeans might not want Monsanto’s MON-810 foisted on them:

1.  All the manufacturers of Bt corn seed are U.S. companies.

In spite of supposedly being a global economy, nationalistic pride remains a factor in trade decisions. The rest of the world isn’t necessarily keen to have the U.S. dominate agricultural markets.

2.  Economics

Bt corn seed is more expensive than traditional hybrids or open-pollinated seed. Although it can be argued that Bt corn is more economical in years of high borer infestation, as the Minnesota study showed, if only three out of eight years resulted in severe population outbreaks, is it worth spending the extra money year after year?

3. Untested effects of Bt corn

Traditionally, Bt has only been applied when larvae are active. In those circumstances, Bt’s limited half-life means minimal exposure for humans. However, in GMOs, Bt is constantly present in the plant itself. Further, geneticists specifically designed Bt corn to produce much higher levels of Bt Cry proteins than those found in the traditionally applied insecticide. Does more Bt enter the food chain this way? And what about effects on reproductive and developmental systems? The EPA, which regulates insecticide use, doesn’t require this type of testing on insecticides that otherwise show no significant adverse health effects in mandatory disease and toxicity studies.

4.  Insect resistance to Bt

Insects are incredibly adaptable. Over time, they can develop resistance to any consistently applied or available substance that interferes with their feeding opportunities. That’s why any sound integrated pest management program requires insecticide rotation. A constantly available supply of Bt is a real risk in resistance development by the European corn borer. The EPA and GMO manufacturers are aware of this problem, and the EPA now requires any land planted to GMOs to maintain a “refuge” where at least 20%-30% of the insect population will not be subject to Bt. The current management strategy for Bt corn resistance is a) hope that the higher levels of Bt in the GMO seed will kill off resistant larvae that can later develop into mating adults, and b) hope that non-resistant moths living in the refuge will mate with any resistant moths that should survive the Bt in the maize crop in order to prevent development of a totally Bt-resistant insect.

There is another risk to development of Bt resistance, and that is the risk to organic growers. Bt is really the primary line of defense for organic growers. Among the other insecticides listed for use on European corn borer, only permethrin, a synthetic chemical that combines the natural insecticides of the pyrethroids (members of the chrysanthemum family), has such low toxicity that it can be applied from 0-1 day prior to harvest. However, since permethrin is not totally natural, organic certification societies may not allow this insecticide to be used.

5.  Cross-pollination issues

Corn pollen is fairly large and doesn’t travel very far on the wind. It also degrades on the ground within 1-2 hours on sunny days. Nevertheless, in order to avoid possible outcrosses, scientists recommend distancing GMO corn from other plants by a distance of 660 feet  if the GMO planting is greater than 20 acres and from 165-660 feet if the planting is less than 20 acres. These distances may be achievable in the U.S., where land is plentiful, or even in countries such as Australia, but, for European farms, or even smaller American farms, 660 feet may be too significant an amount of non-productive land to offset the GMO benefits.

6.  Particular characteristics of MON-810

Without getting too technical, MON-810 is designed to have Bt present in all parts of the plant, while some other GMOs only have Bt present in the leaves. In other words, MON-810 is a very aggressive approach to European corn borer management.

In summary, there are many reasons why Europeans, and other nations, might legitimately object to GMO corn being planted in their countries. The memo from Ambassador Stapleton strikes me as appallingly rude, ignorant and bullying, and I’m grateful to have this kind of undiplomatic behavior exposed.