Bt GM crops aren't very insect reststant

September 2014

Photo of aubergines in a basket with protest sign behind - no to BT brinjal
Bt brinjal (aubergine) protest. CC photo Joe Athialy on Flickr
Is the biotechnology industry vision of perfect GM crops, untouched by pests, falling apart?

Is the grand US vision of its GM technology saving farmers in developing countries getting shaky?

Reports coming from around the world in suggest the dreams are not all they're cracked up to be.

In June, the Guardian reported claims in the local press in Bangladesh that field trials of experimental 'Bt' brinjal (aubergine) had failed.

In this pilot scheme, which was supported by USAID and Cornell University, four varieties of insecticide-generating GM brinjal were grown in a range of climactic regions.

The project's team reacted angrily to suggestions of any problem and claimed farmers were, in fact, coerced by “two men” into saying their GM crop had failed.

Smelling a rat, the Guardian spoke to 19 out of the 20 farmers involved in the trial and established that nine of the test crops had, indeed, been unsuccessful. In one region, four out of five of the Bt brinjal crops failed.

The problem seems to have been that, while the GM brinjal successfully repelled the fruit and shoot borer pest as designed, the crops were vulnerable to other common problems. In particular, drought, and bacterial wilt which is a disease carried down from year to year when the same crop is planted continuously.

COMMENT Drought is bound to be a regular feature of Indian agriculture, and failure to rotate crops has been an unfortunate feature of GM crops elsewhere in the world.

In July, Bt bollworm-resistant cotton in a major cotton growing belt in Pakistan was being attacked, not only by the pest it was supposed to kill, but in some cases by another pest, mealy bug. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council blames insufficient levels of Bt toxin in the plants for promoting resistance. It complains that huge levels of government spending and foreign aid have failed to lead to the development of indigenous GM seed; instead farmers have been sold copy-cat biotech industry varieties created for use elsewhere.

Also in July, farmers' representatives in Brazil demanded compensation from four of the biggest multi-national biotech companies after their Bt corn leafworm 'resistant' maize fell victim to the pest. The blame has been laid on the farmers for not planting non-Bt refuges to slow down the emergence of resistance, and on the seed companies for not providing clear instructions. Barely any non-GM maize seed is available.

EU regulators are considering approval of Bt maize 1507 despite the finding that resistant fall armyworm emerged in Brazil after only three years of planting the crop, and despite the withdrawal of maize 1507 from the market in Puerto Rico due to pest resistance.

US university entomologists have reported that continuous Bt corn growers in the Midwestern states and struggling to control populations of western corn rootworm. The Bt corn varieties being grown generate various Bt toxins and all produce adequate levels of their insecticide. Farmers have been told there's nothing they can do once the pest has taken hold, and that they should plan a crop rotation for the future.

The biotech industry is busy creating GM crops with more than one insecticide in a bid to stay one step ahead of the pests.

There are some disturbing themes arising repeatedly in these reports.
GM crops are not living up to the hype. 
Problems arising from their short-comings are not being addressed: they are denied, and 'solved' using another technical quick-fix whose shelf-life is unlikely to be any longer than the last one. The biotech industry answer is just more of the same.
Mis-placed foreign aid and inappropriate importation of GM technology are encouraging the problems.
Most of all, neglect of good old-fashioned crop rotation is simply encouraging pests for the biotech industry to make more money from.
On top of the US pest-free dream which can just as easily turn into a pest-infested nightmare, the US weed-free dream hasn't fared much better (see SUPERTOXIC REMEDIES FOR SUPER-WEEDS - News, September 2014).

  • Saad Hammadi, Bangladishi farmers caught in row over $600,000 GM aubergine trial, Guardian 5.06.14
  • Dr. Eva Sirinathsinghji, Bangladeshi Bt Brinjal Pilot Scheme Failed, Institute of Science in Society Report, 7.07.14
  • Jamal Shahid, Bollworms develop resistance against Bt cotton crop, 14.07.14
  • Caroline Stauffer, Brazil farmers say GMO corn no longer resistant to pests, Reuters, 28.07.14
  • GM corn that should resist pests brings trouble for Brazilian producers, GM Watch translation,, 3.07.14
  • Brazil: Pest resistance to Bt maize 1507 in third year of cultivation,, 23.07.14
  • Suspected Bt corn rootworm resistance in Pennsylvania,, 12.08.14

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