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Of corn, genetic modification and the lowly honeybee

August 16, 2012

In the article “Gillibrand asks for expedited pesticide review” in our August 2 issue, Paul Towers is quoted as saying, “This is a reminder of the power and influence of pesticide corporations.” Towers represents one of the parties that had petitioned the EPA unsuccessfully to have the pesticide clothianidin banned due to its probable connection to Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees.

But “pesticide corporations” describes only the tip of the iceberg. The fact is that global agriculture is increasingly owned by a handful of corporations, led by Monsanto, that have locked up the planet’s genetic heritage in patented seeds—and designed those seeds to specifically require the pesticides and herbicides that they themselves manufacture. It’s that nexus—agribusiness’s commitment to giant monoculture crops like corn that can be produced by industrial methods, genetic modification (GM), and manufactured pesticides and herbicides—that threatens to wipe out the honeybees, and maybe us along with them.

Back in the early 1990s, corn—already by far the dominant U.S. crop—was being grown mainly using integrated pest management (IPM) systems that employed crop rotations, the support of natural predators, and biocontrol agents like ladybugs, with chemical controls used only as a last resort.

Enter genetic manipulation in the mid 1990s. The game plan for agribusiness was obvious: patent genes so you can hold a monopoly over the seeds that contain them. Select for the genetic quality of herbicide resistance, allowing farmers to use large quantities of herbicides you yourself manufacture to kill weeds without killing the crop. With this domination-style weed management, foster a switch away from IPM, requiring domination-style pest management as well. Coat the seeds with pesticides, which you also manufacture, allowing farmers who had formerly managed pests partly by rotating corn with less lucrative (read: less heavily subsidized) crops to grow it year after year, maximizing profits—at least for a while.