Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

Posted on March 22, 2014  Comments (0)

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

Entomologist Bruce Tabashnik of the University of Arizona called Bt resistance “an increasingly serious problem,” and said that refuge sizes need to be increased dramatically and immediately. He and other scientists have pushed the EPA to double current refuge requirements, but so far without success.

“Biotech companies have successfully lobbied EPA for major reductions in refuge requirements,” said Tabashnik.

The problem is not only that our politicians are scientifically illiterate but politicians are also extremely corrupt – selling out the country for those that give them cash over and over again.

Related: Trying to Find Pest Solutions While Hoping Evolution Doesn’t Exist Doesn’t Work (2010)Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Prevent Research (2009)A Guide to Political Interference in Science (2006)Our Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksGene Duplication and EvolutionEthanol: Science Based Solution or Special Interest Welfare

Shields also lamented the difficulty he and other academic scientists long experienced when trying to study Bt corn. Until 2010, after organized objections by entomologists at major agricultural universities forced seed companies to allow outside researchers to study Bt corn, the crop was largely off-limits. Had that not been the case, said Shields, resistance could have been detected even earlier, and perhaps stalled before it threatened to become such a problem.

“Once we had legal access, resistance was documented in a year,” Shields said. “We were seeing failures earlier but were not allowed to test for resistance.”

University-based scientific research is extremely important. I am frustrated by those that think of academia as separate from society. My father was a statistics, engineering and business professor and he was more involved in directly improving results for society than most anyone I have run across. There is a great deal of great work done by universities. I am very concerned about the closed science focus of many universities the last few decades. Many have become barely interested in increasing knowledge, sharing knowledge and improving society and instead focused on how much they can pay their executives, their administrators and their athletic coaches. It is a severe failure in the organizational structure that so many have allowed themselves to be subverted by a few greedy executives (including athletic coaches and departments, administration and deans that are more worried about increasing revenue than increasing the spread of knowledge).

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