Butterfly Experiment Highlights Biotech Hazards

This article originally appeared in Synthesis/Regeneration 21, Winter 2000.

Genetically engineered crops threaten monarch butterflies. The headlines spread worldwide this past May, after three researchers at Cornell University published a study confirming what critics of biotechnology have been saying for a decade: that the environmental consequences of genetic engineering would prove to be widespread and very damaging.

This was far from the first study of its kind. After 25 years of research in genetic engineering, over a decade of open-air field tests, and three years of aggressive promotion of genetically engineered crops in the commercial marketplace, research on the health and environmental effects of engineered crops is finally beginning to catch up with the industry juggernaut. But while biotech companies pour billions of dollars every year into developing and marketing new high-tech crop varieties, researchers concerned about the health and environmental consequences of these technologies face scarce research funds, unrealistic burdens of proof, and sometimes even professional ostracism. For more than two decades, assertions about the likely ill effects of genetic engineering have been dismissed as mere speculation. As fast-merging “life science” conglomerates seek to control all aspects of seed production, agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceutical manufacture, their reach is having an ever more chilling effect on many areas of science.

In this setting, it is quite remarkable that the monarch study was done at all. It is even more remarkable that it was done at Cornell University, home of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the biotech-centered Boyce Thompson Institute, and numerous individual researchers who are focused on everything from Bovine Growth Hormone to developing new biotech crop varieties. This may explain why Cornell entomologist Dr. John Losey was so quick to downplay the real-world consequences of his experiment.
What Dr. Losey and his two colleagues did was quite straightforward in scientific terms. They collected pollen from one of the “pest-resistant” corn varieties that is now being aggressively promoted by Monsanto and other biotech companies. The corn plants are genetically engineered to secrete very high doses of a toxin naturally produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt. While short-lived Bt bacteria normally produce this toxin in an inactive form, which becomes activated only when absorbed into the highly alkaline digestive systems of organisms such as the corn rootworm, genetically engineered Bt crops produce up to 20 times as much toxin in its activated form in every plant tissue throughout the plant’s entire life cycle.

The Cornell researchers used a simple spatula to apply Bt corn pollen to the leaves of common milkweed, which is the sole food source for monarch butterflies in their early larval stages throughout much of North America. Three-day-old butterfly larvae were exposed to the treated milkweed, and others were placed on milkweed leaves that either had no pollen on them, or only pollen from non-genetically engineered corn. After only four days, 44% of the larvae that were exposed to the Bt pollen died, while both control groups had a 100% survival rate. The surviving Bt-exposed larvae were also reduced in weight by more than 60%. “These results have potentially profound implications for the conservation of monarch butterflies,” the three researchers wrote in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature. In subsequent public statements, the researchers instead emphasized the differences between the laboratory and the field.
Still, the worldwide response to these findings was unusually swift. The New York Times published the story on page one, assigning the story to a reporter who is very knowledgeable about wildlife ecology. Even USA Today gave the story front page coverage. In Brussels, Belgium, the European Union’s Environment Commissioner announced that the EU would withhold the permit process for all new genetically engineered Bt corn varieties. In Mexico, the environmental Group of 100 joined with Greenpeace to demand an immediate ban on Bt corn, whether imported or grown domestically. In Britain, supermarket chains and fast food restaurants stepped up their efforts to end their use of genetically engineered ingredients; just a week earlier, Europe’s two largest food companies (and the world’s first and third largest), Nestle and Unilever, announced that such ingredients would no longer be used in any of their products.

Consumers, farmers, and others in Europe and much of Asia are closely following the growing evidence for the health and environmental consequences of genetically engineered plants, animals and bacteria (known collectively as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs). In the last two years, European researchers have documented the ill effects of Bt crops on the lifespan and egg production of ladybugs, the survival of green lacewing larvae, and the behavior of honeybees. Ladybugs and lacewings are considered important natural pest controls, and few flowering plants would thrive without pollination by honeybees.

Researchers at the University of Chicago reported last fall that genetically engineered plants (in this case, an herbicide tolerant variety of a common mustard) may be far more likely to cross-pollinate with other related plants than their non-engineered counterparts. This means that exotic, laboratory-created combinations of genes are much more likely to contaminate related plants with their pollen than was previously realized. Imagine the consequences of herbicide-tolerance genes spreading to weedy varieties of mustard, for example, from fields of herbicide-resistant canola. With a third of last year’s Canadian canola (oilseed rape) crop having been genetically engineered, this is no longer an unlikely prospect.

A Saskatchewan farmer named Percy Schmeiser found out the hard way, when Monsanto labeled him a “seed pirate,” and sued him for allegedly growing its patented variety of genetically engineered canola without a license. Schmeiser retorted that he never planted any genetically engineered canola, and that samples of Monsanto’s variety were found in his fields due to genetic contamination from a neighbor’s crop. This case is being watched closely by everyone concerned about the effects of genetic engineering on agriculture. In Holland, a US brand of organic corn chips was pulled from the shelves after it was found to contain traces of genetically engineered corn. The Wisconsin-based organic food manufacturer, Prima Terra, traced the corn to an organic grower in Texas whose neighbor grew genetically engineered Bt corn. Not even our organic crops are safe from genetic contamination.
Recent studies of the health effects of genetically engineered foods also confirm what biotech critics have been saying for a very long time. In February 1999, Britain was rocked by the news of an experiment that was almost successfully suppressed. Last summer, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a Senior Research Fellow at Scotland’s Rowett Research Institute, was fired for going public with his findings that genetically engineered potatoes damaged the internal organs of laboratory rats. The Institute refused to release any of Pusztai’s data, and locked him out of his own laboratory. Pressure from scientists across Europe led to the eventual release of Pusztai’s findings: rats fed genetically engineered potatoes had significantly smaller (by weight) intestines, pancreata, kidneys, livers, lungs, and brains, and enlarged thymus and prostate glands. The potatoes had 20% less protein than normal, and the rats’ immune systems were depressed. Another British study suggests that soy allergies may have increased by as much as 50% over the years that genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant varieties have become widely available.

These findings have not been taken lightly by a British public that is still reeling from the Mad Cow disaster, in which almost all the nation’s cattle were ordered destroyed to prevent the spread of this severe form of highly infectious brain damage. Protests have escalated to the point where every major supermarket chain in Britain has agreed to stop using genetically engineered ingredients in its store brands. US grain suppliers have backed down from their earlier claims that it is impossible to segregate genetically engineered varieties of soybeans and corn from conventional varieties. They are pledging to send only non-genetically engineered grain to their European customers or, as in the case of Archer Daniels Midland, to only include engineered varieties that the European Union has already approved.

What this means, however, is that corn and soybeans being sold for food processing and animal feeds in the US are likely to include even higher proportions of engineered varieties. Nearly 40% of last year’s US soybean crop was genetically engineered, 25% of the field corn, and a third of Canada’s oilseed rape (canola). With 60% of processed food containing at least one of these three ingredients, American consumers have become the guinea pigs in yet another involuntary experiment, with potentially severe consequences for our health and the environment.

Here in the US, the movement against genetically engineered food is just beginning to be noticed by the major media. The Green-initiated international gathering of biotechnology opponents in St. Louis in 1998 sparked the development of new activist networks across the country. Over 100 outraged citizens protested at the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Seattle in May of 1999 and a larger gathering is planned in response to the industry’s 2000 convention in Boston during the last week in March. This past summer and fall, there were a dozen incidents in which activists pulled up or cut down fields of genetically engineered crops, mostly at experimental sites at large state universities. There have been a growing number of community forums, local consumer campaigns and efforts to pressure major food companies. Gerber (a subsidiary of Novartis, the world’s largest biotech company) responded to a single letter from Greenpeace representative Charles Margulis with a pledge to remove genetically engineered ingredients from its baby food products.
Several organizations across the country are uniting around a campaign of lawsuits and legislation aimed at getting labels on genetically engineered foods; half a million signatures on a labeling petition were presented to Congressman David Bonior of Michigan in June. But labeling represents a halfway measure at best. While some well-informed consumers will be able to avoid genetically engineered products (and are already doing so), few families are in the position to simply avoid nearly all processed food products. The biotechnology industry, which has thus far avoided widespread publicity in the US—while telling people in Europe and Asia that American consumers support the genetic engineering of food—is reportedly developing a compromise labeling plan along with the USDA, in a desperate move to try to assuage the fears of European consumers. Any US campaign focusing solely on labeling ultimately plays into the hands of this back-room effort, while allowing the food industry to convey the message that if our food is already full of engineered ingredients, then they must be perfectly safe to eat.

Genetic engineering is more than just a matter of consumer “choice.” It has profoundly damaging implications for our health, the environment, and the future of agriculture as we know it. Activists and other concerned people in Europe and Asia have no illusions about this. They have cut down over a hundred test plots of engineered crops, French farmers have ransacked McDonald’s restaurants , and numerous petitions to the courts and various national governments have contributed to a climate where it is simply politically unacceptable to support genetic engineering in agriculture. In Britain, the Labor Party government has been thrown into crisis, with even many of the Party’s long-term supporters attacking Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the biotechnology industry.

Polite requests to label genetically engineered foods won’t save a single monarch butterfly. They won’t protect a single farmer or a single journalist from Monsanto’s incessant threats and lawsuits. They won’t protect the vast majority of people, whose food choices are far more limited than we often realize, from unknown health hazards. They won’t begin to address the wider ethical problems of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies that threaten to transform our health care system and usher in a new era of human cloning and eugenics.

We can no longer settle for halfway measures. Recent corporate mergers in the growing “life sciences” industry promise a future in which genetic manipulation will rapidly become the technology of choice in every area of food, medicine and seed production. We need to learn from our sisters and brothers in Europe and Asia, and develop a people’s movement against biotechnology that can meaningfully resist all aspects of this industry’s mounting assaults on the integrity of life on earth.

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