This summer, a severe drought and genetically modified crops are delivering a one-two punch to US crops.
Across the farm country, years of reliance on Monsanto‘s Roundup Ready corn and soy seeds—engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—have given rise to a veritable plague of Roundup-resistant weeds. Meanwhile, Monsanto’s other blockbuster genetically modified trait—the toxic gene of the pesticidal bacteria Bt—is also beginning to lose effectiveness, imperiling crops even as they’re already bedeviled by drought. Last year, I reported on Bt-resistant western rootworms munching on Bt-engineered corn in isolated counties in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.
This summer, resistant rootworms are back like the next installment of a superhero blockbuster movie franchise. In a July 30 post, University of Minnesota extension agents Ken Ostlie and Bruce Potter report they’ve seen a “major [geographical] expansion” of rootworm damage throughout southern Minnesota, where Monsanto’s corn is common. The severe drought, they add, has “masked” the problem, because rainstorms typically make rootworm-damaged corn plants fall over, and rainstorms haven’t come this year.
Drought plus a plague of rootworms presents a compounded problem to farmers: The bugs tend to thrive under dry conditions, and the damage their incessant root munching does to plants above ground, like stunting their growth, is “magnified” by lack of water and heat stress, Ostlie and Potter add.
Last week, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Mark Steil filed a report on a workshop on Bt-resistant rootworms at which Potter spoke. Apparently, the entomologist minced no words:
Potter told them [the workshop’s 100 attendees] the genetically modified corn is basically backfiring. “Instead of making things easier, we’ve just made corn rootworm management harder and a heck of a lot more expensive,” Potter said.
Here’s how Steil describes the interaction between drought and rootworms:
In fields with a rootworm problem, the bug damages the cornstalk’s ability to absorb water just when it’s needed most. With the roots weakened, the plant can also be more vulnerable to wind.
The Minnesota outbreak isn’t the first sighting of rootworms rampaging through Bt corn country this growing season. Back in June, University of Illinois entomologist Michael Grayreported that “The western corn rootworm ‘season’ is underway at a pace earlier than I have experienced since I began studying this versatile insect as a graduate student in the late 1970s.”
The Latest Streaming News: Superinsects updated minute-by-minute
Bookmark this page and come back often