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Outwitting Mosquitoes and Monsanto

By Nancy Myers Lots of news stories can tempt environmentalists to say “I told you so” because, unfortunately, our worst predictions tend to come true. Today’s biggest case in point is the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico but here are two more: 1. Fields planted with genetically modified crops are beginning to produce superweeds. 2. Malaria mosquitoes are breeding resistance to DDT and the milder insecticides used in bednets.

Unfortunately, “I told you so” is seldom a helpful response. In the spirit of helpful responses, I’d like to point out some important lessons emerging from the two less visible disasters I’ve named.

First, the superweed story, which is described in this article in the New York Times. As scientists have been predicting for years, the use of crops genetically modified to withstand weed killers has prompted the rapid evolution of weeds that withstand the same killers. Monsanto, the company that has been making a killing off of both the GM seeds and the weed killers, is now subsidizing farmers to buy ever-stronger weed killers and, of course, is frenetically developing more crop seeds to resist more herbicides. (And how long will it take the weeds to outwit those?)

Meanwhile, farmers are being set back 20 years and more, resorting to more plowing, dousing their land with more poisons, and even pulling weeds by hand. This makes farmers poorer and madder, our food more expensive and poisonous, and the land sicker.

Now malaria. This story in the Yale Environment 360 is about a new set of solutions to a problem that most of us living in temperate climates aren’t aware of. You know those bednets celebrities are always seen passing out in African villages? They don’t work after a few years. And the mosquitoes have figured out how to get around them. They just bite outside instead of in the house. Plus, they’re developing resistance to the pyrethroids in the nets and sprays, as they have been doing for years to DDT.

So how are some countries like Mexico actually winning the malaria battle? By being smarter than mosquitoes. (This is challenging for human beings but, nevertheless, possible.)

It turns out that mosquitoes are very local creatures. They don’t fly far from where they breed, and they breed in conditions specific to that location. Being smarter than a mosquito means figuring out their preferences in a particular community and then changing those habitats—cleaning trash out of drainage systems here, eliminating algae there. Unlike insecticides, habitat changes quickly reduce mosquito populations. It’s how we eliminated malaria in the American South a century ago.

So here are the lessons for malaria, GM crops, oil spills, and other predictable disasters:

  1. Don’t be lazy. Technology too often comes in one size that’s supposed to fit all. That’s a lazy solution. We need to understand problems better before we come up with big solutions that have unintended (if predictable) consequences. Usually there are smarter solutions that will work better but they often have to be tailored to different situations.
  2. Think long term. Increasing crop yields for a few years in a way that makes future farmers and the earth poorer is no bargain. Preventing malaria for a season will only become more expensive next season unless it’s accompanied by investments in long-term prevention. (Though undoubtedly those bednets will prevent some suffering meantime.)
  3. It takes a community. Many heads and hands are required to outwit a mosquito or develop a sustainable food system. But that means jobs, social interaction, and an increase in everyone’s stake in the future. Doesn’t that sound like more fun than passing out bednets?