The U.S. food supply is not in any immediate danger because the problem remains isolated. But scientists fear potentially risky farming practices could be blunting the hybrid's sophisticated weaponry.
When it was introduced in 2003, so-called Bt corn seemed like the answer to farmers' dreams: It would allow growers to bring in bountiful harvests using fewer chemicals because the corn naturally produces a toxin that poisons western corn rootworms. The hybrid was such a swift success that it and similar varieties now account for 65 percent of all U.S. corn acres — grain that ends up in thousands of everyday foods such as cereal, sweeteners and cooking oil.
Scientists say the problem could be partly the result of farmers who've planted Bt corn year after year in the same fields.
Most farmers rotate corn with other crops in a practice long used to curb the spread of pests, but some have abandoned rotation because they need extra grain for livestock or because they have grain contracts with ethanol producers. Other farmers have eschewed the practice to cash in on high corn prices, which hit a record in June.
So, the problem may have more to do with human greed than with science per se. But, of course, that is a common theme in the world.
Threats to the food supply also put me in mind of a National Geographic TV Channel special that first aired in 2010 but was replayed this past week: Aftermath: Population Overload. The premise is: what would happen to the world if all of a sudden there were 14 billion of us, instead of "only" 7 billion. I won't keep you in suspense if you haven't seen it. The writers image that the world economy collapses, mass migration occurs, and the population crashes back to something closer to today's level. This is sort of a graphic reenactment of the Club of Rome study--"The Limits to Growth"--put together by a team of researchers at MIT in the early 1970s. As I note in Ch. 11 of Population, their conclusion was that by the 2100 resources will be exhausted, the world economy will collapse, and the world's population size will plummet. We all hope that these future scenarios are way off the mark, but it is always useful to work out the worst-case scenario in any situation, and know how you would deal with it.
On that note, Happy New Year!