In what “Frankenfood” (genetically modified food) opponents view as the best news of the century, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, recently fined multinational agri-giant Monsanto $2.5 million for selling mislabeled seed to cotton growers in 10 prohibited counties in Texas.
The sales occurred from 2002 to 2007, and the ban, designed to prevent increasing insect resistance to the patented pesticide in Monsanto’s Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton – sold under the trade names Bollgard and Bollgard II – has since been lifted.
Monsanto says the EPA lifted the ban because it had “determined that it was appropriate”. More like the EPA realized that – once the horse was out of the barn – it didn’t do much good to close the door, though apparently the EPA and Monsanto don’t think the average reading public is smart enough to figure that out without assistance.
The interesting thing about this ban is that Monsanto reportedly discovered its error in 2006, a full two years before the ban was lifted. Which suggests one of two scenarios; the EPA is slower than molasses implementing policy; or Monsanto sat on its “discovery” for a year before reporting it – a scenario verified by the fact that Monsanto’s release mentions 2006, and the EPA’s says Monsanto reported the error in 2007.
Heaven forbid that the public consider a third scenario; collusion between the agency and the multinational. We all know that doesn’t happen, right? Even though job-hopping between the corporate and political worlds reached epidemic proportions under the Bush administration, and continues to this day, albeit in much more covert fashion than formerly.
Monsanto’s story is that farmers in the 10 counties (Carson, Dallam, Hansford, Hartley, Hutchison, Lipscomb, Moore, Ochiltree, Roberts and Sherman) wanted a “20-percent structured refuge” (read buffer zone) between cotton and corn fields, since corn was the predominant crop.
In fact, Monsanto claims that farmers wanted this 20-percent buffer zone rather than the 50-percent buffer zone established for corn in other parts of Texas. And, while I am not a farmer or a mathematician, I do know what a buffer zone is, and I know that 50 percent is better insurance against genetic drift and pesticide resistance than 20 percent.
The EPA describes the fine as the “biggest ever imposed under a federal law that regulates pesticides and fungicides”. Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles, of the EPA’s enforcement division, said that the fine (and Monsanto’s agreement to pay it) demonstrates the agency’s readiness to take action against scofflaws. Steve Owens, of the EPA’s Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Office, added that the laws exist to prevent the “development and spread of insect resistance”.
That (spread) is another door closed after the horse got out, at least in India, where field monitoring of the 2009 cotton crop in Gujarat shows the pink bollworm displaying “unusual” survival skills in fields of genetically modified, pest resistant Bollgard-brand Monsanto cotton.
In the U.S., the resistance has been documented in crops in Mississippi and Arkansas, where, between 2003 and 2006, Helicoverpa zea (variously known as cotton bollworm, corn earworm, or tomato fruitworm, depending on where it is feeding), was first identified as being Bt resistant. According to research scientist Bruce Tabashnik, it was the first statistically tabulated case of resistance being developed in the field.
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