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December 15, 2012

'superbugs'

New breed threaten nation's crops

(Continued)

The biotech companies say they will educate farmers and extension agents on how to minimize the health and environmental risks, and that the multiple genetic weapons contained in the new seeds will make it impossible for pests to develop resistance.

“We believe this can be managed,” said Rick Cole, a weed management technical lead for Monsanto.

Still, a rising chorus of protest from environmental and agricultural scientists says it won’t work. Nature, they say, will simply adapt again.

“It makes about as much sense as pouring gas on a fire to put it out,” said Charles Benbrook, a researcher at Washington State University. “It is going to lead to the exact same problem and a substantial increase in much less benign herbicides.”

Fifteen years ago, genetically modified seeds revolutionized farming.

Monsanto introduced the first, a variety of soybean that was immune to the herbicide Roundup. Suddenly, life got a lot easier for farmers. They could spray their fields once or twice with Roundup -- prized because it kills virtually all plants but is largely benign to animals and people -- and then plant their crops. And they no longer had to till the land to get rid of pesky weeds, greatly reducing the potential for soil erosion.

Roundup-ready cotton, corn, canola, alfalfa and sugar beets followed in quick succession, making Roundup one of the most widely used herbicides in the world. “Farmers were very quick to adopt it,” said Cole.

A few years later, Monsanto introduced the next genetic advance — corn that contained its own insecticide, a protein called Bt that is poisonous to insects. Bt corn also was viewed as an environmental boon, because it was highly targeted — it killed only the insects that ate the corn. That meant far less aerial spraying and dousing soils with poisons that killed everything from worms to birds.

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