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The Bollworm Controversy --
Monsanto's Bt Cotton in 1996

Crop and Soil Environmental News, January 1997

Charles Hagedorn,
Extension Biotechnology Specialist

This article will be one in a series that covers the performance of the engineered crops that became commercially available on a large-scale in 1996.

Monsanto's Bollgard (Bt) cotton was plagued during the 1996 season with above-normal bollworm pressure and grower complaints. At the heart of the controversy that developed in 1996 were claims by Monsanto of 90% to 95% bollworm control with Bt cotton. However, some consultants and growers believe Monsanto misrepresented the amount of bollworm control its new transgenic Bollgard cotton would provide. Mid-summer bollworm damage in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton forced many growers to spray, a step some consultants claim Monsanto told them would not be necessary.

The Bollgard cotton appeared to have failed on 3 to 5 thousand acres, primarily in East Texas, and complaints by cotton consultants and growers prompted Monsanto to issue spray advisories for Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Monsanto contends the product did exactly what the company claimed it would-provide 90% to 95% control, but is not 100% perfect, 100% of the time. Many of the complaints are related to the unusually high bollworm pressure felt throughout much of the Cotton Belt in 1996. In retrospect, 1996 was perhaps not the best year to launch the cotton Bt technology because of the unusually high pressure from the bollworm. If Bollgard achieves 95% control, there are still 5% survivors. Obviously, the more worms there are, the more survivors there will be. When high insect pressure occurs, the number of survivors represented by 5% might be significant enough to warrant spraying.

However, bollworm pressure was up from 1995 and this upward trend may be the norm of the future due to scaled-back crop subsidies and high grain prices. Corn is the preferred host crop for bollworms, which often migrate to adjacent cotton fields. Because of the large corn and grain sorghum acres planted now, this type of high pressure may continue in the future.

In spite of the 90 to 95% effectiveness claims, some cotton consultants reported that the product was only 60% effective on bollworms. Growers are upset because they paid a substantial fee for bollworm control with Bollgard cotton that some feel was not anywhere close to satisfactory levels. In some parts of Texas, most growers had to spray at least once for bollworm and approximately 80% of the growers in these areas had to treat their Bollgard 1-1/2 to 2 times. The Bollgard controversy is now headed to the courtroom. In August, a group of Texas growers filed suit against Monsanto over its 33B and 35B transgenic varieties. The legal firm of Longley and Maxwell, in Austin, TX, claims that monsanto misrepresented the product to his 17 clients.

These clients claim that, through their literature and grower meetings last November and December, Monsanto represented that if they planted this product, they wouldn't have to spray for bollworm and budworm. However, the 1996 field experience indicates that Bollgard actually takes more intensive scouting and work than other common cotton varieties. The suit also claims Bollgard cotton has not performed to the same standards as conventional varieties. Monsanto admits that there are some farmers who are dissatisfied but feels the suit is premature because the suit was filed before yields were even in. Monsanto has a good point in believing that growers need to take a step back and look at Bollgard's performance over a full season.

Filed in Fall County, TX, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the case a class action suit which-if granted, and Monsanto is found liable-would make any grower who purchased Bollgard eligible to receive compensation. A hearing on the request isn't expected until later this winter. While Monsanto says it would vigorously challenge a class action suit on the basis that most growers are satisfied, farmers outside of Texas also have contacted the attorney about joining the suit. Even if a class action suit isn't granted, other unsatisfied growers may be added as plaintiffs. Updates on this legal action will be provided when available.

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