Bt-Crops and Herbicide Tolerant Varieties

        Interesting times.  The emergence of transgenic plant varieties,
perhaps soon the norm rather than the exception across the agricultural
landscape, will both dramatically accelerate the pace of change in ag
production systems, patterns of expenditures for inputs, and farm
sector/corporate winners and losers.  The environmental and food safety
consequences of farming systems will also change markedly.  One wonders
whether the laws, policies and precedents now in place will serve society's
needs well as this brave new era unfolds. The signs so far are not encouraging.

        The U.S. EPA has approved a bunch of Bt-transgenic plant varieties
despite lots of evidence that they will lead to resistance in several major
pests.  Approvals were predicated on the hope that unproven resistance
management "plans" -- based on the mix of the high-dose strategy and refugia
-- might work.  Now that there is overwhelming evidence from crop year 1996
experience in cotton that they will not, other than to delay resistance a
few years at best, one would hope that EPA would act to limit the spread of
these varieties until an effective resistance management plan is in place,
but no, EPA apparently is not persuaded it has the authority to do this, or
perhaps a reason to do it.  

        Losing Bt to resistance is NOT like losing one of many OP
insecticides, or one synthetic pyrethroid (after another) to resistance.  Bt
is a natural product, a gift from Mom Nature to those who hope to continue
eating fruits and veggies without worm holes or residues.  Pest management
experts in Florida warn that if they lose Bt -- and they no doubt will if
transgenics take over the south -- they will be forced to return to the
stone-age of pest management, when 12 applications of OPs will be needed in
a 13 week tomato crop to get respectable looking fruit to market.  Of
course, that will only work for a few years because of resistance, and the
race will be on in the pesticide industry to grow and hold marketshare as
the pesticide treadmill chugs on. There will then be a need for breeding new
pesticide-producing genes into plants, and who knows what else. 

        Ditto in Europe. The EU Commission recently approved the sale of
Bt-transgenic corn in European markets, having found that the corn poses no
risk to humans or animals.  On the matter of Bt-resistance, the commission
found that the potential exists for the development of resistance, but that
this "cannot be considered an adverse environmental effect..." (and serve as
a basis for denial) since other means exist of controlling European corn
borer if resistance to Bt crops emerges -- yes, alternatives like a pound
application of a hot OP or an ecologically disruptive pyrethroid.  I wonder
if they had in mind, instead, crop rotations and improved biointensive IPM

        And on the corporate front, conservative "Farm Journal" in its
latest issue has raised concerns re the $1 billion deal through which
Monsanto gained control of Holden Seeds, the source of 35% of the parental
lines for independent corn breeders.  Between Monsanto and Novartis,
pesticide companies with a major stake in Bt-transgenic and herbicide
tolerant corn varieties will control a major chunk of the corn seed market,
and will influence the genetic make-up of most of the rest.  At this
juncture, Monsanto officials are reportedly saying they are not going to
abuse their market position to force farmers to buy seeds with their
proprietary technology locked in it, and will even sell hybrids engineered
to be resistant to another company's proprietary herbicide (what a relief).
How long do you think that will last? 

        As someone who has studied and watched how public insitutions and
policies have reacted to, and tried to avoid major disasters from new ag
technologies over the last 20 years, I am amazed at the speed and ease with
which companies have gained approval to bring on such mammoth changes in
production systems and industry structure, changes that are bound to have
all sorts of major economic and environmental consequences no one can
predict, and which no one is really watching out for, other than the
companies, of course. I do hope someone from the ag community will step
forward and make the case to EPA, USDA, the FTC and the Congress that it
makes sense to preserve a minimal degree of diversity in the U.S. seed
business, if it is not already too late. 

Charles Benbrook                         202-546-5089 (voice)
Benbrook Consulting Services             202-546-5028  (fax)
409 First Street S.E.                    benbrook@hillnet.com   [e-mail]
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