Are the tables turning in the war between pests and genetically modified crops?S

Monsanto Company, the agricultural biotech corporation that everyone loves to hate, is the world leader in the production of genetically modified (GM) crops — plants that, among other things, prevent yield-decimating pests from overrunning agricultural production.

But research findings by Iowa State University entomologist Aaron Gassmann have revealed the first evidence of major pest resistance to a Monsanto crop. In at least four Iowa corn fields, small pests called western corn rootworms (the larvae of which can ravage corn crops if left untreated) are putting up a fight, evolving to resist the pesticide engineered into Monsanto's corn plant.

What the rootworm's evolved resistance to Monsanto's crop says about the future of genetically modified agriculture depends largely on your opinion of GM crops. Those who are fundamentally opposed to the practice of crop biotechnology as a whole — i.e., the individuals quick to decry GM crops as "Frankenfood" that will spell the demise of the human race — are probably liable to assume a position of "I told you so."

For Monsanto and their global competitors, however, the defiant resistance to the GM crops exhibited by rootworms has the majority of their attention focused on identifying and implementing the next generation of genetic technology that will further protect plants from insects. (Red queen hypothesis, anyone?)

And for others still, who support the production of GM crops but question the farming practices they have engendered, concerns center around how to best use GM technologies so as to prevent resistance like this from occurring in the future.

See, when Monsanto came along and offered farmers insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops, it totally changed the game of agriculture. For generations, farmers relied on cycling the type of crops they planted on a season-to-season basis to fight pests. By cycling between corn and soybean crops, for example, the offspring of pests that succeeded in corn fields during one season would subsequently starve in the next season's all-soy environment.

With GM crops, farmers could all of a sudden plant the same crops from one year to the next — a practice that certainly made things easier for the farmers, but one that many say has led to undesirable farming practices that allow for resistance to emerge in pest populations. For example, according to Dr. Gassmann, the GM crop—resistant bugs he found in Iowa were living in fields that had been seeded with the same strain of Monsanto's pest-proof corn for at least three years running.

"These are isolated cases, and it isn't clear how widespread the problem will become," said Dr. Gassmann in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "But it is an early warning that management practices need to change."

Via The Wall Street Journal
Top image via Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock