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July 25, 2014
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editorial

Of corn, genetic modification and the lowly honeybee


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.

Unfortunately, the time has now come to pay the piper, and honeybees are not the only casualty. A number of pests, like the corn rootworm beetle, have predictably developed resistance to all this chemical warfare. The response is similar to that of the pharmaceutical industry to drug-resistant diseases: use heavier doses, and develop new versions—for which you can charge even more. Too bad that the resistant bugs and weeds have a tendency to be more malignant than the ones you started out with. That, in turn, makes it harder to restore the natural balance and go back to IPM, leaving world farmers trapped in a vicious cycle. No wonder there’s an epidemic of suicide among Indian farmers who grow cotton—which, along with soy and corn, is one of the three big GM crops.

Then there’s the general poisoning of the environment not only by the pesticides and herbicides used along with the GM seeds, but from substances like Bt that the plants are now engineered to secrete. In the big picture, the honeybee is only one part of the wide swath of collateral damage inflicted by this profit scheme.

The evidence is that not only clothianidin, but the entire neonicotinoid class of which it is a member, are contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder. Get rid of them all, and it might very well be game over for Monsanto et al. Farmers might have to go back to IPM—and so long, Monsanto profits. We’re talking about a revolution against the giant multinational corporations that control the agriculture for an entire planet. Of course the EPA—part of a government bought and paid for by multinationals—is dragging its feet.

The EPA claims that there is no conclusive proof that clothianidin has a long-term adverse impact on bee colony health. That’s putting the burden of proof in the wrong place: the agency approved the pesticide for widespread use without ever—by its own admission—getting adequate evidence that it was safe in the first place (see www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/february2012/insecticideforGMcorntoxicbee...). Meanwhile, there is substantial proof not only that clothianidin has highly toxic effects on bees, but that those effects specifically correspond to the type of damage seen in Colony Collapse disorder (see www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/04/new-studies-colony-collap...).

The EPA said petitioners hadn’t sufficiently balanced clothianidin’s benefits against its costs. Well, here’s the calculation: clothianidin wasn’t approved until 2003, and the human race got along just fine without it up until then. We’ve needed bees for millennia, and have no substitute. We think the balance is pretty clear.

The public needs to wake up and fight not only this EPA action, but the entire agribusiness machine. It is not only the honeybee that is at stake. Local agricultural activists looking to make our area a prototype for sustainable, small-scale farming are doing their share. A few comments on this issue to the EPA wouldn’t hurt, either.