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.

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25 Comments on “WikiLeaks and the Monsanto GMO Cable”

  1. dakinikat says:

    Thank you so much for translating this for us!! I knew it was important and now I know why. I have a friend in India whose family owns and runs a huge farm. (They do a lot of mangoes, you may have actually eaten one.) He says they’ve had trouble with Monsanto going around and giving the small farmers seeds for one season for their farms. Then the seed fails to provide seed for the next season and cross pollinates with their fertile crops and they are basically f’d. It sounded like a ‘drug dealer’ model of marketing to me. That’s why this cable caught my eye. I figured that any product that had to be pushed by our government had to have issues.

    And an official welcome to the Front Page!!!

    • grayslady says:

      Thanks. My own particular concerns with GMO corn not only have to do with the level of Bt in the plant–compared with periodic applications of Bt–but when I studied entomology, I was forcibly struck by the similarities between insect digestive systems and human digestive systems. We may not have compound eyes, wings and exoskeletons, like the insects do, but it seems to me that neuro-disruptors and endocrine disruptors are dangerous substances, whether you’re talking about insects or humans.

      • dakinikat says:

        Really. Wow. I’d have never even thought about that. We just don’t have enough information about some of these science experiments. There’s such a rush to bring things to market.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        This was a great post grayslady. Tell me, but I am sure I know the answer already, do these seed producers have a lobby in Washington and do they contribute lots of money to various campaigns and stuff? I need to read the links you provided, but I can see how this is making the farming situation more difficult in developing areas. Yes, drug dealer marketing indeed.

        • grayslady says:

          Do the biggest ag companies in the world have lobbyists? You bet.

          Keep in mind that these innovations in plant breeding can be very effective if used with care. I think GMOs probably have a place in non-food crops, such as cotton, but I have serious reservations about their use in food crops.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    Grayslady,

    That was fascinating. For the first time I think I actually understand what GMO means. I always wondered what made this different from the kinds of hybridization techniques that have always been used.

    Sadly this is just one more case of the U.S. government favoring giant corporations over human beings.

    Congratulations on your first post! I hope you’ll write more about these issues. We are so lucky to have you.

  3. mablue2 says:

    What a spectacular post!

  4. My understanding is that if farmers have GMO cross polination in their non GMO plant – seeds. The corporaiton (Monsanto) comes after them stoping planting those seeds. The legal teams of corporations are large and they swamp the small farmer who does not want to use GMO. They tie the small farmer (businessman) up with legal fees that are beyond absorbing for small farms. They then go out of business.

    Is this a correct understanding?

    It is also my understanding that the large chemical corporations have purchase the seed companies to control availability which is compatible with their chemicals.

    Is this a correct understanding?

    • grayslady says:

      To answer your second question first, if you think of Monsanto, in addition to seeds, they also produce Roundup, one of the most successful broad-spectrum herbicides in the industry. So yes, some of these companies are integrated chemical-ag companies. I can’t answer whether that growth has come from outside corporate purchases or whether they have grown these divisions from within.

      As to the first question, *any* hybrid seed that outcrosses with other seed will not produce an offspring similar to the parent. So the seed companies aren’t too worried about small farmers absconding with their products. The techniques by which hybrids are created is also quite sophisticated.

  5. NW Luna says:

    Novartis Seeds? That’s the same Novartis that’s the Big Pharma company? Must be.

    I recall hearing some Novartis people talk about a drug launch in a field totally new for them. Novartis had bought up a company which owned rights to a certain drug. The Novartis people were clueless about topics which were crucially important to patients who might use this drug.

    Novartis has recently sunk tons of money into marketing their just-approved oral drug for MS, fingolimod (Gilenya). The FDA approved it for first-line use, which was questionable IMNSHO, as we only have about 3 yrs of data on it. It should be for people who haven’t been helped by the other meds. All the other drugs for MS are injectables, but for the existing first-line drugs we have about 15 years of data, and adverse effects are minimal compared to fingolimod. Just because a drug is in pill form doesn’t mean it’s any safer!

    Side effects and contraindications
    Although the trials so far have shown fingolimod to be well tolerated, the side effects that have occurred include headache, upper respiratory tract infection, shortness of breath, diarrhoea and nausea.

    In the TRANSFORMS clinical trial, two deaths resulting from herpes virus infections occured in patients taking the higher dose of fingolimod. Other aspects of the treatments these two patients received may have contributed, but a role for fingolimod cannot be excluded given it’s immunosuppressive action, which could lead to an increased risk of infections.

    In addition, eight cases of localized skin cancer occurred in the fingolimod groups and were successfully removed. Macular oedema (swelling in the back of the eye) also occurred more frequently in the fingolimod-treated participants. In the extension to the TRANSFORMS study, side effects were similar to thos reported in the initial trial year, and included further new cases of skin cancer, herpes virus infections, cardiac disorders and macular oedema, all of which were more common in those on the higher dose. No instances of macular oedema or skin cancer occurred during the FREEDOM trial.

    http://www.mstrust.org.uk/research/drugsindevelopment/fingolimod.jsp

    Anyhow, (sorry for the long rant) I wouldn’t trust Novartis Seeds to care for anything besides their profit margin, which is no more than I would trust Novartis Pharma.

  6. I subscribe to a magazine called ACRES, calling itself The Voice of Eco-Agriculture. The Jan issue just came today and they have a article: Seeds of Sustainability. The article talks about the drastic dimiishing of diversity of available seeds. They talk about three companies controling 56% of global seeds. The corporaitons drastically dominate the funding in State Agricultural Experiment stations. A pie chart shows Monsanto had 23% of the global proprieary seed market.

    One could say they are not fans of GMO. Unfortunately the web version of the magazine still has the Dec issue. http://www.acresusa.com/magazines/magazine.htm.

    Possibly when the Jan issue is on the net we can continue the discussion

  7. Seriously says:

    Wow, that was extremely interesting and easy to understand. Thanks and congrats on your first post!

  8. Sima says:

    Excellent post, Grayslady, simply excellent!

    I am sorry I was not online when it was published, to get in on the conversation early. It’s been major family time around here for the last couple days.

    GMO ‘Roundup Ready’ corn and soybeans and now sugar beets are also a real threat to organic farming and traditional farming. These seeds are engineered using e. coli (yes, e. coli) to transport genes into the plant that allow them to resist Roundup, the herbicide made by Monsanto.

    This article from the Union for Concerned Scientists evaluates the data on GMO crops and shows they aren’t all that much better, if at all, than traditionally bred crops (i.e. hybrids etc). In fact it goes on to say that the major advances made in food production have been with traditionally bred crops, not with GMO. It’s an interesting article:

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf

    I think we need to keep up on the food angle in wikileaks. I hope to get a post up about some more leaks and the food angle in the next few days. Right now, I’m running ragged. Just made a ‘this is your life’ kind of display for my father about the company he helped start. It was pretty emotionally wrenching, looking at pics of my parents 49 years ago, heh.

    Anyway, once again, absolutely brilliant post. I’m so glad you decided to write about this!

  9. Grayslady,
    This is very belated, but what an incredibly informative and helpful debut to the frontpage. Brava!

  10. grayslady says:

    Thank you. Glad you appreciated it.