On July 20, agri-giants Monsanto and Dow received EPA approval to move forward with a 2010 commercial launch of Genuity Smart Stax, a new corn seed that combines in-plant insect and weed resistant technologies developed by each company. Farmers are expected to plant 3-4 million acres of the new corn seed next year. According to the companies, this will represent the largest introduction of corn biotech seed in the history of agriculture.

How does it work? One of the three components of this new seed is Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that kills many harmful insects by creating pores in the insect’s gut. Monsanto, Dow, and other companies have spliced the genes of the Bt toxins into the corn’s genetic code. In short, these plants produce their own insecticide.

Why is this a problem? That depends on which angle you take. From the conventional farmer’s perspective, the development of these products is a huge relief — the farmer can continue to intensively grow one crop on the same patch of land without having to adjust his practices. It’s sort of like a drug dealer making crack that will tweak you out at night but leave you ready for work in the morning. If there are no immediate consequences, why fix your bad habits?

From the organic farmer’s perspective, this trend is bad news. Bt, a living organism that belongs to no one, is one of the most effective tools available for  organic pest control. By creating plants that naturally produce the bacteria proteins so deadly to pests, Monsanto, Dow, and their ilk are also encouraging the evolution of  insects that will be resistant to the Bt toxin. Already, Diamond Back moth populations with a resistance to Bt have been discovered. Likewise, farmers growing GMO cotton have documented pest resistance to Bt crops. It is worth noting that, unlike conventional farmers, most organic farmers only spray Bt when a pest population has gotten out of control. It is also worth noting that Bt, when sprayed on vegetables, is not harmful to humans if consumed in small amounts.

From the consumer’s perspective there are many unanswered questions about GMO foods, especially those that produce their own insecticides. For one, notice that this new seed received approval from EPA and not the FDA. That’s because the FDA considers this type of seed to be an insecticide, not a food product, therefore placing it under the EPA jurisdiction. Even Monsanto’s own language reflects this inherent disconnect between food and these new products: “The decisions also include a reduction of the typical farm refuge requirements for farmers who plant the technology.”

I don’t know about you, but I prefer eating food, not technology.

Secondly, and of greater concern, are some studies that suggest high levels of Bt can cause infertility in mice (and by extension, people).  Before this study took place, Monsanto tried to stop it. Once the study was completed, they attempted to suppress the findings. It is worth noting that these GMO plants “naturally” contain high concentrations of the Bt toxin.

And finally, as with all crops that are wind or insect pollinated, it is virtually impossible to prevent the genes of these plants from spreading into non-GMO crops. Perhaps this is the greatest concern of all — especially considering the reduced buffer/refuge zones required for Genuity Smart Stax — that even if you make every effort to avoid the loaded gun of GMO crops, their genes can still find their way into your food.

 

 

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