Reaction to Michael Fumento’s The World Is Still Safe for Butterflies

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  ·  Biotech

Genetic Engineering Is Not Crossbreeding

Letters to the Editor
The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 1999
Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. In your June 25 editorial-page commentary, "The World Is Still Safe for Butterflies," Michael Fumento declares that monarch butterflies have little to fear from pollen of genetically engineered corn. And, by extension, he suggests that humans have nothing to fear either. Don't bet the farm on it. Mr. Fumento is correct in stating that the Cornell University study did not duplicate field conditions. However, he errs in rejecting the possibility that monarch butterflies in the wild eating milkweed near cornfields would be affected. No studies have been conducted to examine this. He disingenuously describes genetically engineered crops as simply a more sophisticated form of the traditional agricultural practice of crossbreeding plants. It is not. Genetic engineering splices the DNA from one organism into the DNA of another, creating organisms that would never occur in nature. Very little testing has been conducted on the human and ecosystem health implications of genetically engineered crops. The effects on monarchs are but one of what could be many unpleasant surprises to come. New food allergies, antibiotic resistance in consumers and "superweeds" inadvertently created from pesticide-resistant seeds are all possible consequences from this new technology. Mark Ritchie
Gabriela C. Flora
Program Associate on Agricultural Biotechnologies
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Minneapolis ### Biotech Products Are Rigidly Tested

Letters to the Editor
The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1999
Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. The July 13 Letter to the Editor "Genetic Engineering is Not Crossbreeding" is accurate in only one respect: Biotechnology differs from crossbreeding in that one gene is inserted into an organism to achieve the desired effect. With traditional crossbreeding, every gene of an organism is potentially mixed with another. The one desirable trait that breeders want can be passed on, but so will some undesirable ones. With biotechnology, scientists are able to focus on the desired gene and subject it to extensive testing before and after it is inserted into the new organism. Three federal agencies ñ the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture ñ review a full battery of studies as the transgenic crop proceeds through development from field trial to full commercial release. I serve as chair of an international panel of scientists formed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization to construct model approaches to assess the safety of GMOs. The testing done by major U.S. biotech companies meets or exceeds those standards. Required testing, including allergy and toxicology studies, examines possible effects on human health. Other tests include examination of possible effects on mammals, birds, fish, beneficial insects, earthworms and lesser life forms. The potential to cross-pollinate with weedy relatives is also examined very closely. Potential to persist in the environment is also studied. Products are not approved for extensive test planting, much less commercial sale, unless they pass these tests. Perhaps the writers of your July 13 Letter were not familiar with these procedures when they declared that biotech products are not adequately tested. Steve Taylor, Ph.D.
Professor and Head
Department of Food Science and Technology
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Lincoln Neb. ### Dressing Up the Butterflies

By Steven J. Milloy, July 20, 1999
Copyright 1999 Steven J. Milloy In a scene reminiscent of a John Belushi "killer bee" skit from Saturday Night Live, anti-technology activists dressed like butterflies this week (June 24) and demanded that European environment ministers ban the growing of genetically modified crops. "Give butterflies a chance," their banners read. What is it about activists that makes them want to dress up like cows or vegetables or butterflies? Everybody else waits until Halloween. These folks wait for the next scientific study they can exploit into a "sky is falling" scenario. Then they stitch up a costume and get their pictures in the paper. This time, a laboratory study out of Cornell University was their inspiration. It showed that Monarch butterflies can die if they are forced to eat pollen from corn genetically enhanced with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria to protect itself against insects. The study gave no indication of how much pollen Monarchs would have to eat to be harmed, or whether they would actually eat pollen if they could choose not to. It was a simple experiment that proved what entomologists already knew. Bt corn is toxic to lepidopteran insects that feed on corn, and it is not news that other moths and butterflies could be harmed if they ate Bt corn or pollen. The author of the study, Professor John Losey, does not believe his study means curtains for the Monarch. "Our study was conducted in the laboratory and, while it raises an important issue, it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to Monarch populations in the field based solely on these initial results," Mr. Losey said in a June 11 interview. Maybe the Europeans missed that quotation. But he said essentially the same thing on British radio the day his study summary was released in the journal Nature. "I don't think it's a scare story, because we're showing that this is only a laboratory study. At this point, I can't see pulling back on the {Bt} crops because of their proven benefits weighed against potential risks," Mr. Losey told the BBC on May 20. On the same day, he was quoted in the Associated Press, saying, "I still think the proven benefits of Bt corn outweigh the potential risks." One of the proven benefits is that Bt crops, which reduce the use of chemical insecticides, stand to have a positive impact on ladybugs, lacewings and other insects that frequent cornfields. This could have a positive downstream benefit on birds that feed on insects. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence from farmers who have switched to Bt that they are seeing more birds in and around their fields. Other scientists have weighed in on the issue as well: * Warren Douglas Stevens, senior curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden, suspects that in a natural setting butterflies, which apparently don't like corn pollen, would avoid eating it if they encountered it on their food source. * Tom Turpin, professor of entomology at Purdue University, believes there is little threat to Monarch butterflies encountering Bt pollen on milkweed because there is very little milkweed in and around cornfields. * Preliminary studies have shown that corn pollen, which is fairly heavy, does not travel very far. * John Foster, professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska, believes automobiles pose a greater risk to Monarchs than Bt corn.

All those scientists, and Mr. Losey himself, say more study is needed to know if butterflies in nature would ever encounter enough Bt corn pollen, during the few days a year when corn is pollinating, to cause any serious harm. But waiting on data is not nearly as much fun as getting to dress up for the media. In fact, many in the media have been as guilty as the activists, dressing up this laboratory study to make it look like something it is not. Steven J. Milloy is an author, lecturer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page, judged one of the "best 50 web sites of 1998" by Popular Science magazine.