Corn Is No Monarch-Killer

July 28, 2001 Omaha World

Herald Monarch butterflies aren't threatened, after all, by genetically engineered corn that contains its own pesticide. That's what the Environmental Protection Agency confirms following a review of field tests in Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland.

Wonderful. Now who's going to undo all the damage?

Who will comb through the World Wide Web and contact the proprietor of all those Web sites that perpetuate the idea that monarch larvae are susceptible to the pollen of the special corn plant?

Who will chase down and correct the misimpression, widely held in Europe, that the monarch is a victim of a thoughtless American vendor of "frankenfood"? This misimpression helped fuel a wave of paranoia across Europe that has ignited anti-science protests and contributed to the anti-globalization movement.

And who will make sure that all the teachers who incorporated the monarch story in their lesson plans find out that the story was a false alarm?

The story got its start two years ago when scientists at Cornell University announced that, based on laboratory tests, they concluded that the butterfly's larvae were poisoned by the pollen from Bt corn - a variety bred to poison a worm that preys on the corn plant. Milkweed, which is often found in or near cornfields, is a favorite food of the butterfly larvae.

Critics of the Cornell study said the laboratory conditions did not re-create field conditions and might have overstated the impact on the larvae. Scientists at the University of Nebraska and Iowa State, among others, looked at various aspects of the alleged problem. The EPA indicated that, based on those follow-ups, skepticism was in order.

Now the EPA has come down more precisely. The scientist who led the review said the chances are one in 100,000 that a monarch larva would be affected by pollen from the special corn and even then would grow into a healthy adult. Bt corn produces no danger to monarchs or any other wildlife, the EPA research leader said. (A separate body of concern exists in the area of corn that has been engineered to survive a treatment of Round-Up pesticide, thereby clearing the weeds and leaving the corn. Round-Up kills milkweed.)

It is the way of science to theorize, experiment and test the results with further experiments. Perhaps further testing will further modify the existing body of knowledge about genetically engineered corn and monarch butterflies. So be it.

The unfortunate aspect of all this, however, is the practice by advocacy groups and others of picking and choosing among the studies, prematurely declaring that the truth has been found the moment some untested idea matches their political agenda. The monarch story has already been spread so far and wide that the EPA findings may never catch up. It helped ignite the frankenfood panic. And it is likely to live on, creating confusion, worrying schoolkids and serving as an excuse for people to don masks and storm the barricades in places like Genoa and Quebec. It's too bad. Science deserves better.

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