EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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December 15, 2012

'superbugs'

New breed threaten nation's crops

PRESTON, Minn. — Danny Serfling knew he was in trouble in July. Tiny white worms in the soil had eaten away the anchoring roots on half of his corn, and in one big storm last summer, the stalks toppled like sticks.

“All the corn around here went flat,” said Serfling, who farms a few hundred acres in southeastern Minnesota. He waved a tattooed arm toward stubbled hills that rolled away to the gray sky, resigned to the next step. “We will have to use more insecticide,” he said.

It is what scientists and environmentalists regard as one of nature’s great ironies: Fifteen years ago, genetically engineered seeds promised to reduce the amount of poisons used on the land, but today they are forcing farmers to use more — and sometimes more toxic — chemicals to protect their crops.

Why? Because pests have done what nature always does — adapt. Just as some bacteria have become resistant to antibiotic drugs, a growing number of superweeds and superbugs are proving invulnerable to the tons of pesticides that go hand in hand with genetically modified seeds.

The rising tide of pesticides is alarming scientists and environmentalists about their effect on what’s left of the North American prairie ecosystem, which survives in and around the vast “green deserts” of row crops that stretch across the Upper Midwest.

“There are now 80 million acres of treated corn,” said Eric Mader, an ecologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “That’s a huge volume of pesticides applied for one crop.”

To combat the growing wave of resistant weeds and bugs, Monsanto and Dow Chemical Co. are poised to launch a new arsenal of genetically modified seeds that will accelerate the chemical warfare. Some are designed for use with older, more toxic herbicides that scientists say pose an even greater risk to the environment and human health.

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