- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

''Good news isn't news" appears to be the media's attitude to- ward food biotechnology controversies. Environmental Protection Agency science advisers just determined that the biotech corn involved in the recent taco shell recall is unlikely to cause any health problems.
The experts concluded there was only a "medium likelihood" the unapproved variety of biotech corn might cause allergic reactions in people. However, they said so little of the corn is in the food supply that there is only a "low probability" that consumers would actually develop allergies to it.
In contrast to the Page One treatment the initial scare received, this bit of good news was relegated to the back pages of newspaper minutiae if it was mentioned at all. Incredibly, though, this scant coverage was more than was received by another recent major biotech development.
The media almost entirely missed news about the potential impact of biotech corn on Monarch butterflies.
In March 1999 and August 2000, the media trumpeted alarmist laboratory studies claiming biotech corn could harm Monarch butterflies. Headlines such as "High-tech corn killing butterflies" and "New study confirms genetic corn kills butterflies" appeared in newspapers around the world. Wire services and television networks broadcast stories reporting a great hazard had been unwittingly unleashed on the environment.
Not so fast, though, cautioned most entomologists. They warned against drawing conclusions from simple laboratory studies where caged Monarch caterpillars were forced to eat high doses of corn pollen containing an insecticidal protein.
It was always known the Bacillus thuringiensis protein in the so-called Bt corn could harm butterfly larvae if they ate enough. Bt corn, after all, is designed to kill harmful caterpillars that tunnel into corn stalks and chew on corn ears.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency knew when it approved Bt corn that desirable butterfly and moth species do not eat corn and it assumed any risk from pollen would be outweighed by the benefits of reducing insecticide use, which definitely knocks out Monarchs along with ladybugs, spiders and other beneficial insects.
When a Cornell University experiment demonstrated what was already known, the media overreacted and people demanded proof that Bt corn was safe for Monarchs. So, a series of field studies were launched in summer of 1999 at several universities and research institutions.
The results of the first round of research were presented at a workshop in November 1999. The results indicated little, if any, threat to Monarch populations. But some questions remained. So an additional $200,000 worth of studies were commissioned and more researchers took to the field during the summer of 2000.
The results of the latest research were presented at a U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored scientific workshop open to the public last week. The USDA heard from a number of researchers who are pretty much convinced that pollen from Bt corn is not a threat to Monarch populations.
If you didn't hear about the results, you're not the only one. In fact, unless you attended the conference or read the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you would never know the workshop had been held.
For two days, university and USDA researchers reported on their field research. They found: Monarchs used cornfields more than previously assumed. But they also found pollen levels in Bt cornfields weren't high enough to harm Monarch caterpillars that might be feeding on milkweeds there.
The Star-Tribune's Sharon Schmickle was the only reporter on hand when the researchers presented their results. Not surprisingly, the Star-Tribune is the only media outlet to report the positive findings.
The researchers found Monarch larvae actually fared better inside Bt cornfields than in natural areas, apparently because there is less pressure from predators in the cornfield. And, needless to say, Monarchs in Bt cornfields did much better than Monarchs in fields sprayed with insecticides.
Another important finding was that most Monarch larva development occurs before or after corn plants shed their pollen. So most Monarch caterpillars have limited exposure to pollen. Those present during pollination almost always encounter harmless doses.
Workshop chairman Dr. Eldon Ortman of Purdue University told Miss Schmickle that, "This is not a very big issue." The research still needs to be peer-reviewed and published before a scientific consensus is formed.
Is that what the media are waiting for? Or is there no headline value in the mounting evidence that biotech corn delivers improved yields of a high-quality, safe food and a safer environment for Monarch butterflies?
Also, no activist groups attended the workshop, though they have exploited the butterfly issue for almost two years. While feigning concern about the Monarch, they simply used the butterfly as a means to scare the public about biotechnology and to raise funds.
Over the past 12 months, there have been more than 1,000 media accounts mentioning the alleged threat to the Monarch. It's interesting that on a day when extensive research goes a long way toward putting their concerns to rest, the activists and the news media were nowhere to be found.

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

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide