BRUSSELS, Belgium - New research proves GM plants kill butterflies, and these crops should be banned in Europe now, says the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE). Not so, says EuropaBio, the European biotechnology industry association, in its own analysis, released at the same time.
FoEE is calling for a complete ban on genetically modified maize following publication of new research from the University of Iowa in the scientific journal Oecologia. The study, says FoEE, shows that pollen from these plants killed up to 70 percent of monarch butterfly larvae, complementing 1999 studies at Cornell University that demonstrated that nearly half of the butterfly larvae ingesting GM maize pollen died.
According to FoEE, the Cornell research was fiercely attacked by the biotech industry for being "artificial" since the caterpillar's natural food, milkweed, had been dusted with pollen by the researchers. But the Iowa researchers gathered milkweed plants that had been naturally dusted with pollen from Bt maize from around fields, stress the environmentalists. Within 48 hours, about 20 percent of the caterpillars feeding on the milkweed were dead; this rose to between 37 percent and 70 percent after 120 hours. FoEE quotes approvingly the scientists' conclusion that "the ecological effects of transgenic insecticidal crops need to be evaluated more fully before they are planted over extensive areas."
"This significant new research substantiates what environmentalists have been saying all along: that GM plants pose unacceptably high risks to biodiversity," said Gill Lacroix, biotechnology coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe. "The biotech industry strenuously denied the Cornell research last year, but once again independent scientists have demonstrated that we are endangering all kinds of beneficial and benign insects by planting these crops, let alone other species and the environment in general."
Friends of the Earth is calling on the European Union not only to maintain its current "de facto" moratorium on further authorizations of GM plants, but also to withdraw the approvals already granted for three types of insect-resistant GM maize. "It's madness to continue to allow these things on the market," Lacroix said. "The maize involved in the University of Ohio research was Novartis Bt 176, the very first type of GM maize to be authorized for cultivation in the EU. We want approval for that, and the others, revoked immediately."
But the EU biotechnology industry is standing its ground. EuropaBio spokesman Paul Muys said more than 20 studies by widely recognized, independent scientists confirm that pollen from genetically modified maize does not pose a significant risk to the monarch butterfly. For EuropaBio, this unanimity is more important than the Iowa study, "focusing on one small area of a complex topic."
The new study "does not reflect field reality" and "does not seem to add much" to last year's Cornell study, EuropaBio said. "The Iowa team's methodology created a situation . . . very different from that prevalent in a natural environment, as experienced by most monarch larvae, who feed on milkweed plants mostly in June, whereas the peak time of maize pollen shed is from mid-July to August." It argues that although the total acreage planted with GM maize in 1999 increased by 40 percent, the monarch butterfly population in the USA flourished and grew by 30 percent.
EuropaBio wants to demonstrate its concern, however: "Industry continues to actively support research on the impact of GM pollen on the monarch, together with the authorities and representatives of consumer and environmental organizations," Muys said. But it insists that genetically enhanced insect pest-tolerant maize products "are proven safe for humans, animals and for non-target insects and have only been authorized after years of thorough scientific review. In the meantime, the introduction of insect- protected maize has allowed North American farmers to increase their yields between 5 percent and 20 percent and to reduce the use of pesticides."