Street Theater Shouldn't Dictate Environmental Policy
Will the World Reject Biotechnology Because of a Simplistic Children's Skit? It Just Might Happen
December 3, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on genetically modified foods.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the nightly TV news with its recent Chicago hearing on the environmental risks of genetically modified corn.
In a bit of street theater, a dozen little kids dressed up as butterflies ran in mock terror from a man dressed as a giant ear of gene- enhanced corn. This is corn whose DNA includes a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, soil bacteria.
The Bt gene produces a natural pesticide that organic farmers have been using for more than 30 years. But the kids ran nevertheless.
Videotape of the "butterflies" and the "Frankencorn" led TV news shows, and photos made the front pages of many newspapers.
Months earlier, Dr. John Losey of Cornell University reported that 11 Monarch butterfly caterpillars died in his laboratory after eating milkweed leaves that had been dusted with pollen from the modified corn.
Environmentalist activists who already believed that genetically modified food is too dangerous to unleash in the environment immediately seized on the Monarch butterfly as the "poster species" for their campaign against biotech.
Turns out it is another well-intentioned but misleading effort to turn emotion into ill-advised environmental policy.
We've put Bt toxins into corn to fend off the corn borers that otherwise destroy millions of bushels of the world's corn production each year. Every bit of that wasted corn means we have to use more land to produce our food and livestock feed instead of leaving more land for nature.
Still, we don't want to kill wildlife, and especially not lovely species like the Monarch butterfly. But it's no surprise that the Cornell experiment killed Monarch caterpillars.
Bt toxins naturally kill caterpillars and, indeed, that is what organic farmers use them for. The researchers dusted the butterflies' favorite milkweed leaves heavily with Bt pollen.
In the months since Dr. Losey's "finding," studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, land-grant universities and industry labs seem to say that the Monarch butterfly faces little danger from genetically enhanced corn.
Dr. Mark Sears of Canada's University of Guelph found that 90 percent of corn pollen travels less than five yards from the field; virtually none travels more than 10 yards.
Sears also found it takes at least 50 grams of pollen per square centimeter of milkweed leaf before even the youngest and weakest Monarch caterpillars sicken.
Corn plants inside cornfields averaged only 78 grains of pollen per centimeter, and milkweed just three feet outside the fields had only 28 grains per centimeter.
Dr. Galen Dively of the University of Maryland said, "The milkweed isn't real good at catching pollen. Pollen tends to bounce off of it." That's because milkweed's leaves are smooth. Moreover, the youngest and weakest caterpillars prefer the undersides of the milkweed leaves, where corn pollen cannot land or cling.
The University of Nebraska's Dr. John Foster said highway departments probably do more harm to Monarchs by mowing and spraying the roadsides (to keep good driver visibility) than is caused by Bt corn.
The few milkweeds in the fields are hidden under a tall canopy of corn leaves. The butterflies are much more likely to visit the ones by the roadside.
Iowa State's John Pleasants said, "In general, Monarchs feeding more than a yard from a corn field are probably 100 percent safe."
Greenpeace activist Charles Margulis said he was not surprised that the research was favorable to biotech crops. "These guys are funded by the industry," he said.
However, the environmental movement also spends huge sums of money each year and presented no evidence to undercut the academic studies. Even Losey, who was present at a recent seminar, voiced no disagreement.
The environmental movement turned the spotted owl into the poster species to block logging in old-growth forests. (There never were many spotted owls in the old-growth forests; there aren't enough wood rats for them to eat under the closed canopy of big old trees.)
The activists would like to repeat that success with the Monarchs, despite the real-world evidence that the butterflies are neither endangered nor threatened.
Remarkably, almost no ordinary con-sumers came to the widely advertised hearing. We saw only about 45 demonstrators, about the same number of media types and perhaps 100 people in suits representing companies, food processors and bureaucracies.
An accountant who wandered past the meeting said, "Who cares?" Nevertheless, the combination of headlines and committed activists may actually win the battle to ban biotechnology in food.
The public is now so conditioned to the eco-litany that modern farming is bad for the environment that it no longer demands proof. If you don't believe this, just ask your neighbor if pesticides cause cancer.
Forty years of pesticide use now tell us that nonsmoking cancer risks have declined most rapidly where we've used pesticides most widely. But the city of Seattle, where the World Trade Organization is about to debate international trade rules for biotech foods, has banned all pesticides from its buildings for fear of cancer.
If WTO rules end up barring genetically enhanced foods from international trade, that would probably stymie their development for at least 15 years.
However, the world of 2040, more populous and affluent than today's, will need nearly three times as much food as we harvest today.
We could be looking forward to seeing millions of little kids in poor countries going hungry, even blind from malnutrition, while peasant farmers in Asia and Africa slash and burn tropical forests to grow more low-yield food crops.
Will all this happen because of those cute little kids in the butterfly costumes?
OPINION ARTICLES and letters to the editor are welcome. Send submissions to Sally Heinemann, editorial director, Bridge News, 3 World Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10281-1009. You may also call (212) 372-7510, fax (212) 372-2707 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.