TCS Daily


Setting Priorities: Of Bt Corn, Butterflies and Children

By Duane D. Freese - January 22, 2001 12:00 AM

Why are miniscule hypothetical dangers to monarch butterflies or people by bioengineered corn crops widely reported, while scientific evidence of the safety of such crops -- and the dangers posed by the conventional crops they replace -- are largely ignored?

Biotechnology has been on the defensive since a Cornell University laboratory study found that the larvae of monarch butterflies died if they ate massive amounts pollen from genetically-modified Bt corn. (The Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium from which a gene is taken to help make corn resistant to the corn borer.)

While even its authors said the study didn't represent what happens in the real world, headlines blared that "Engineered Corn Can Kill Monarch Butterflies." European protectionists used the results to curb imports of U.S. bioengineered farm produce. Some environmentalists here demanded moratoriums on biotechnology plantings. And protestors at various international conclaves here and abroad dressed up as butterflies to scare consumers about "Frankenfoods."

They sadly have succeeded. Sales of Bt corn have dropped, forcing a cutback in biotech corn planting from 25 percent of the total U.S. crop two years ago to 18 percent last year. Another slight decline is expected this year.

The outcry also provoked tighter regulation of biotechnology. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food Drug Administration announced further controls on bioengineered crops and foodstuffs. The EPA issued rules requiring all crops bioengineered through gene transfers from other organisms to resist pests to undergo federal scrutiny. The FDA proposed two new actions: a mandatory review process for new biotech crops that includes posting scientific data on the Internet, and guidelines for voluntary labeling of both biotech and nonbiotech food.

Biotech's critics, though, continue to howl. Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, decried the new FDA rules on biotech foods for not "subjecting them to the kind of rigorous scrutiny that will assure public confidence both in the safety of the new food products and the integrity of the FDA." And Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he would reintroduce legislation this year calling for mandatory labels and safety testing of new bio-foods.

Such anti-biotech advocates, along with most of the press, ignore the ever-increasing evidence not only that biotechnology crops and products pose no added risk to either humans or the environment, but that, in fact, they are safer.

A 20-month U.S. Department of Agriculture study has found that Bt corn has had nil impact on monarch butterflies. Milkweed, the common food for monarchs, infests less than 0.03 percent of corn and soybean fields, compared with 2 percent of pasture, roadside and undisturbed areas. There is no decipherable difference between fields planted with Bt corn and those with regular corn. In fact, monarchs fared worse in some woodlands than around Bt fields, according to researchers.

Beyond butterflies, scientific studies show Bt corn has advantages over conventional or organic corn for both human and animal consumption.

Biotech critics have made much of the accidental mixing of a strain of Bt corn approved only for animal consumption - StarLink by Aventis - into the human food chain. The press response was epitomized by a Forbes.com headline in a Nov. 22 report: "Disaster of the Day: Aventis Corn Monster." It was a monster because, Forbes reported, the corn contained an insect-killing protein CRY9C - a potential allergen.

The error has increased reporting requirements for tracking all biotech crops - even though no one has suffered an allergic reaction or is likely to. Allergy specialists point out that a person must have a relatively high exposure to an allergen protein - from 1 percent to 40 percent of their total protein intake - to become allergic. And that over an extended period of time. At its most concentrated level, the CRY9C protein makes up only 0.0129 percent of the protein in StarLink corn.

Ignored by the press and biotech critics are the real monsters. Conventional corn harbors mycotoxins, such as fumonisin. Fumonisin is a potential carcinogen for humans. It is not visually detectable; it requires testing to determine its presence - something that isn't readily done at farmers' markets. Bt corn has 30 to 40 times less fumonisin than conventional corn, a Department of Agriculture study, confirmed by researchers at Iowa State University, found.

Likewise ignored or forgotten is that Bt corn eliminates the need for farmers to make the four or five applications of insecticide conventional crops need to protect against the corn borer. Similar protection of biotech cotton against the boll weevil, C.S. Prakash, a professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, noted, eliminated an estimated 5.3 million applications of chemical insecticides over three years. That amounted to 2 million fewer pounds of toxic insecticide being sprayed in six cotton states, according to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.

The NCFAP also reports that Bt corn improves yield over conventional corn by 12 bushels an acre. Such production, the National Academy of Sciences indicated last fall, could mean billions of dollars in savings to farmers every year. Taxpayers as well as farmers have an interest in that as a decline in farm income cost $20 billion in farm subsidies last year.

But there's an even bigger benefit to biotechnology that its critics and many in the press ignore. As a Wall Street Journal editorial reported on Jan. 11: "The World Health Organization estimates that five million children die each year from malnutrition. Millions more suffer ailments such as blindness from vitamin deficiencies." Experts estimate that world food needs will double in 20 years. Organic farming, favored by many environmentalists and consumer organizations, is labor and land intensive -- and very expensive for consumers. Consumers in the United States pay 57 percent more on average for organic foods than conventionally produced ones, according to Consumers Reports. More productive conventional farming - using pesticides, fertilizers and hybridization - is reaching its limits.

Biotechnology offers a potential way out - if the press, environmentalists, consumer organizations and politicians don't kill it by distorting its dangers. Biotechnology requires oversight to ensure an appropriate level of safety to health and the environment. But pumping up miniscule risks to monarch butterflies when children are starving betrays a warped set of priorities. It's time for biotech's critics to demonstrate some common sense, and the press to tell the whole story.

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