13 Dec 2011 1:28 PM

Now that 94 percent of the soy and 70 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, Monsanto -- one of the companies that dominates the GMO seed market -- might look to some like it's winning. But if we look a little closer, I'd say they're holding on by a thread.

Their current success is due in large part to brilliant marketing. The company's approach was both compelling -- their products were sold as the key to making large-scale farming far simpler and more predictable -- and aggressive: Monsanto made it virtually impossible for most farmers to find conventional seeds for sale in most parts of the country.

Despite promises of improved productivity, enhanced nutritional content, or extreme weather tolerance -- none of which has ever come to market -- Monsanto has only ever produced seeds with two genetically modified traits: either herbicide tolerance or pesticide production. And even those traits never lived up to the marketing hype.

But it now appears that the core traits themselves are failing. Over the last several years, so-called "superweeds" have grown resistant to the herbicide RoundUp, the companion product that's made Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant (aka RoundUp-Ready) corn, soy, and alfalfa so popular. Those crops were supposed to be the only plants that could withstand being sprayed by the chemical. Oops.

The superweed problem is so bad that farmers in some parts of the country are abandoning thousands of acres because the weeds are so out of control, or dousing the crops with ever more toxic (and expensive) combinations of other herbicides. Thankfully, it's an issue that's getting more and more media attention.

And now Monsanto's other flagship product line, the pesticide-producing "Bt crops," named for the pesticide they are genetically modified to emit, is in trouble.

Scientists have warned that insects would become resistant from the overuse of Bt crops, but Monsanto poo-pooed it. Even so, when the EPA first considered Bt crops for approval, agency scientists wanted a 50-percent buffer to prevent resistance (only half the acreage in any given field could be planted with Bt crops). Of course, if that demand stood, there is no way that Monsanto would ever have achieved their current market dominance.

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Monsanto's denial of reality in favor of its bottom line, while a practice now commonplace in corporate America, will have repercussions beyond industrial agriculture. Bt is also a key pesticide for organic agriculture; if resistance spreads, it's possible that Bt will lose its effectiveness for organic farmers as well. We're still far from that, thankfully.

Interestingly, this story has mainly been picked up by the business press concerned with the effect of this latest development on Monsanto's stock price. Perhaps we should take the warning of stock traders as a good indicator that Monsanto may really be in trouble.

There is an obvious immediate solution here: Require farmers to plant larger buffers. It's not at all clear that the EPA is prepared to go beyond posting a critical report on an obscure government website -- but if they were, it would have the immediate effect of reducing the amount of Bt corn and soy farmers are growing. And that wouldn't just be good for the bugs.