- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

"Saturday Night Live" fans may recall the self-righteous commentary of one Emily Litella, who invariably concluded with a sheepish, "Never mind," when she finally realized she didn't know what she was talking about. Now it's the environmental group Greenpeace whose turn it is to say, "Never mind."

In 1997 Greenpeace petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to cancel its registrations of so-called biotech corn, cotton and potato plants, which had been genetically improved with a gene from the soil organism Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to ward off harmful insects. The case was part of a larger campaign by activists, more anti-corporation than they are pro-environment, to try to generate doubts about promising but little-known technology by raising esoteric questions about its long-term effects. The implication, as usual, was that they, not scientists and regulators, had given such questions the consideration they deserve.

But the implication was wrong. The agency had done its research, and what it said in its 107-page response to Greenpeace was this: "EPA is aware of no data indicating that unreasonable adverse effects on the environment have occurred during the period that Bt crops have been registered and used (since 1995). Moreover, EPA has no reason to believe that such effects may occur during the continued duration of the current registrations."

Consider more specific complaints from Greenpeace. Activists would have the public believe that pollen from genetically modified crops would drift through the environment, transferring genes into wild plants and creating "superweeds." EPA answered that it had considered the possibility but found concern unwarranted. The likelihood of such movement, the agency said, is "almost non-existent because compatible weedy relatives of Bt crops either do not occur in the United States or are isolated from areas of commercial production. Where compatible weedy relatives do exist in isolated geographic pockets, EPA has imposed stringent sale and distribution restrictions to prevent even the possibility of transgene movement to weedy relatives."

In other words, it is biologically impossible to crossbreed corn, cotton or potatoes with wild plants that grow where crops grow. Seed breeders have known that for generations. You'd think Greenpeace would have known that, too.

Greenpeace further argued that when Bt crops decay, the Bt is released into the soil, posing a threat to soil organisms, such as earthworms. It cited a laboratory study which shows Bt binding to clay in soil. Not to worry, said EPA: Soils are the natural habitat of all Bt species (Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil bacterium); therefore Bt is already naturally present during the crop-growing season and constantly available for ingestion by all soil invertebrates.

Could biotechnology wind up killing beneficial insects? Greenpeace cited a single study showing that lacewing larvae, which sometimes feed on corn borer larvae, could be adversely affected if they ate corn borers that had fed on Bt corn. EPA pointed out that the lacewing larvae in the research were forced to eat nothing but sick and dying corn borer larvae, which may have made them sick. The lacewing was not given a choice of diet, which it has in real life. The overwhelming majority of research on the issue does not show significant detrimental effects due to Bt endotoxin on the lacewing.

Faced with this barrage, Greenpeace abruptly dropped its case. It asked a federal court to cancel its threatened lawsuit against EPA.

Steven Milloy is a lawyer, biostatistician adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junkscience.com.

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