A study conducted earlier this summer by the University of Arizona discovered that five of the 13 major agricultural pests had developed resistance to genetically modified crops. It is important to note that each case of resistance was highly localized. For instance, Western Corn Rootworm may withstand one toxin on several farms in the Midwest, but not all toxins and not in all regions of the country or world. In fact, Bruce Tabashnik, the lead author of the study, reported that "the picture is much rosier than anyone predicted" when GM crops were first introduced 1 billion acres ago in 1996.
Don't let a study's conclusion get in the way of the chance to publish more headlines that report the failures of biotechnology and jump on GM seed companies such as Monsanto (NYSE:MON), Syngenta (NYSE:SYT), Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW), and DuPont (NYSE:DD). Rosy or not, resistance is not good. Once it gets past a certain point the problem can be difficult to contain. We aren't there yet, and luckily, seed companies have already engineered a simple solution (crisis averted -- phew!). But if you take a step back and evaluate the source of the resistance, you'll find that the iconic American farmer may actually be to blame.
Resistance is futile! Take refuge!
GM crops include genes to produce the Bt toxin, which is a natural pesticide found in soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. How big of a breakthrough are Bt crops for farmers? Consider that from 1996 to 2011, global consumption of pesticides fell 9% while Bt cotton and Bt corn alone saved farmers $57 billion in pesticide costs. Savings like that are music to any industry's ears.
As with any product, whether it's an iPod, a bottle of sunscreen, or in this case a bag of engineered seeds, there are rules to follow to ensure proper use and function. Farmers who buy and plant GM seeds are instructed to plant refuge plots, or a minority plot of non-hybrid seeds, that make up about 5% to 20% of each field. Refuge plots don't eliminate resistant pests, but they are extremely effective at controlling their populations.
Essentially, growing a minority of non-engineered crops within your field of mostly GM crops ensures that pest populations will retain a healthy subpopulation of non-resistant pests. Any resistant pests will breed with their non-resistant counterparts and produce offspring that do not carry genes required for resistance. Got that?
That's how biological engineering works. No cancer drug targets 100% of quickly dividing cells in the body -- only enough to elicit an effective immune response. Antibiotics work in much the same way. Perhaps our overuse of antibiotics is the reason resistant infectious organisms such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) exist in the first place. Criticize the rules if you want, but consider that a field of 100% Bt corn would lead to total resistance pretty quickly (that's pretty much the point of the refuge plot) and a field of non-GM seeds would be decimated by pests.
Simply put: When it comes to planting refuge plots, farmers have been dropping the ball. What's this grand solution from seed companies, then?
No, Monsanto and Syngenta aren't upping the dose of Bt toxin in their crops. Instead, most seed companies will soon offer only one option of refuge seeds: Refuge-in-a-Bag. Rather than buy 19 bags of GM seeds for every one bag of non-hybrid seed, haul them back to the field, and become an agricultural alchemist just trying to determine how to most effectively plant a refuge plot, farmers will buy bags that contain a 19-to-1 ratio of hybrid and non-hybrid seeds. It sounds ingenious, but several companies have offered such an option for several years. Now that they're field-tested and ready, there's no going back.
Consider the following three pictures from 2011, when Dow Agrosciences was testing its 95%/5% Smart Stax Refuge-in-a-Bag. Here is a clustered refuge plot (with non-hybrid plants painted orange for a visual) representing the old days of planting seeds:
And the same 5% refuge plot evenly distributed from a Refuge-in-a-Bag:
Just for fun, Dow Agrosciences invited farmers to that plot (before painting the plants) to see whether they could pick out the non-hybrid plants. As it turns out, the task is nearly impossible. The only difference -- genes for Bt toxin -- are not discernible to the human eye.
Foolish bottom line
How do we know combining seeds in one bag will work? As Tabashnik noted in his study, regions that followed refuge rules (Australia, American southwest) had virtually no cases of resistant pests. Those that didn't (South Africa, Puerto Rico, India) weren't so lucky. Without the new bags, farmers would have the option of noncompliance (even by mistake), which would run the risk of pest resistance, which would run the risk of losing biotechnology's valuable advantages. Farmers, investors, and anyone else who enjoys, well, food, should applaud seed companies for acting quickly. How's that for a change?
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool, to keep up with his writing on energy, bioprocessing, and biotechnology.
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