Bad-Mouthing Biotech

January 1, 2001 The Wall Street Journal

Remember all the hoopla a little while back surrounding a May 1999 Cornell University study that suggested genetically modified corn, which produces its own insecticide, was killing monarch butterflies? Scientists found that when monarchs were confined to a laboratory setting and force-fed GM corn for four straight days, some died. Environmental groups like Greenpeace, along with much of the media, embraced the findings as justification for their long-held suspicions toward "Frankenfood." Across the pond, European supermarkets cleared their shelves of GM products, and the European Commission, citing the study, balked at approving the sale of GM corn in Europe.

Now, 20 months later, we get the rest of the butterfly story in the form of a timely cautionary tale. In an effort to confirm the Cornell findings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned comprehensive field studies at several major research universities. In November, while America was preoccupied with another butterfly situation down in Florida, these field study results came in. The verdict?

"Fears that genetically modified corn is killing monarch butterflies are not supported by new research," wrote Sharon Schmickle of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the first media outlet to report the findings. "Indeed," she continued, "the monarchs fared better at the edges of one Minnesota GM cornfield than they did in a nearby wooded area." Comparing survival rates between those butterflies exposed to GM corn and those not exposed, Richard Hellmich, a USDA researcher at Iowa State University, said: "If there are any differences out there, they aren't very profound."

These findings don't surprise anyone able to objectively read the results of the original Cornell study, including its lead researcher, John Losey. "Even as his work was published," the Times of London reported last month, "Dr. Losey himself sounded caveats." He noted, for example, that his findings applied only to laboratory research and, unlike the subsequent field studies that showed no harm to the butterflies, were not designed to replicate actual conditions found in the wild. "Yet while Dr. Losey's 1999 study was reported on front pages," said the Times, "the latest findings have barely had a hearing."

No surprise, there. For the alarmists who distorted the original findings, the well-being of the monarch butterfly is, at best, a secondary concern. The real target is biotechnology, which has made it possible to grow more food on less land and with fewer chemicals. Biotech crops were first approved by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration – neither of which has a reputation of acting hastily on such matters – back in 1995. Today, some 60% of goods on American grocery shelves are products of biotechnology.

In this month's Reason magazine, science correspondent Ronald Bailey reports that one scientific panel after another has concluded that biotech foods are safe to eat. Of course, none of this matters to the anti-biotech crowd, which, in addition to Greenpeace, Ralph Nader and Jeremy Rifkin, also includes groups with names like Seeds of Resistance, Third World Network and Cropatistas. "As one tracks the war against green biotech," writes Mr. Bailey, "it becomes ever clearer that its leaders are not primarily concerned about safety. What they really hate is capitalism and globalization." Here's a sampling from Mae-Wan Ho of the Third World Network, who warns: "Genetic engineering biotechnology is an unprecedented intimate alliance between bad science and big business which will spell the end of humanity as we know it, and the world at large."

Despite such histrionics, biotechnological advancement in the U.S. continues apace. What's sad is that these activists are, with some success, using misinformation to scare those countries most desperately in need of what biotechnology can offer. The World Health Organization estimates that five million children die each year from malnutrition. Millions more suffer ailments such as blindness from vitamin deficiencies. Bioengineered crops could go a long way toward addressing these problems. Too bad some prefer to play politics.

Return to the home page of Better Foods