Commentary: Imperiled Monarchs Alter The Biotech Landscape

Symbols can sway a nation. The Silent Spring battle against DDT and other pesticides revolved around the plight of the bald eagle. Nuclear power foes conjured up menacing images of the cooling towers of the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactors. And gun-control advocates are invoking the horror of the Littleton (Colo.) school massacre.

Up to now, there has been no such crystallizing symbol in the fight against genetically engineered crops. With no hard evidence that such food is harmful to humans, critics in the U.S. have waged a largely ineffectual war to curb it. "Of necessity, we've been talking only about prospective risks--and that's always a frustrating place to be," says Margaret G. Mellon, a gene-splicing skeptic at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

But suddenly, foes of bioengineering in the food supply have their own potent symbol: the beloved monarch butterfly. In mid-May, Cornell University researchers reported that pollen from corn altered to slay corn-borer pests can land on neighboring milkweed plants, where it can kill monarch butterfly caterpillars. The finding has biotech foes exulting. "The monarch butterfly experiment is the smoking gun that will be the beginning of the unraveling of the industry," says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends.

ECOLOGICAL THREAT. The findings cast genetically altered food plants in a new light. They may benefit farmers and consumers, but now opponents have evidence that there could be worrisome ecological effects on other species. Greenpeace and UCS are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to consider pulling altered crop seeds off the market, citing broad environmental concerns. The EPA says it will study the issue.

Here's how the potential ecological threat arises: Genetically engineered corn, such as MonsaNto Co.'s YieldGard, is designed to produce its own natural pesticide, a substance called Bt. The Bt in each plant kills pests, thereby boosting yields. But butterflies and moths are susceptible to Bt, too. In fact, the stuff is used by organic farmers to control certain pests. And Bt is sprayed on forests to fight gypsy moths, where it wipes out related insects.

Companies did make sure that Bt-producing corn did not harm beneficial insects such as honey bees and lace beetles. Yet industry executives and regulators lacked the imagInation to consider indirect effects, whether on monarch butterflies or on predators eating Bt-killed prey. That "calls into question how well regulated the technology is," says UCS's Mellon. And it's part of a general pattern of what critics see as the industry's arrogance about the technology. "Companies have done a terrible job explaining why these products are beneficial," says Ken Moonie of Verdant Partners, an agribusiness investment-banking and consulting firm.

Now biotech giants like Monsanto and Novartis are in full damage-control mode, worried that the study will cause Europeans' fears about gene-altered food to jump the Atlantic. "This has certainly caused quite a flap," says Philip Angell, a Monsanto spokesman. "It is clearly something that raises or will raise the discussion about biotech to a level where it has not existed before."

Meanwhile, the European regulatory climate is growing harsher. European Commission officials announced that they would not only put U.S.-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.'s application to sell pest-resistant corn on hold but also will review existing approvals for other products. "The industry is in big trouble," says agriculture consultant Charles Benbrook. "It misplayed its hand by overstating its command of the science and its knowledge of the consequences."

If biotech companies had considered unintended side effects years ago, they wouldn't be on the defensive now. The industry "asked for trouble, and they got it," says monarch expert Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College. Genetic engineering still holds the promise of revolutionizing agriculture. But the path to that future just got more uncertain.

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