By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - In the United States, the increase in the number of genetically engineered crops planted has barely raised an eyebrow. That was until the Monarch butterfly.

The news in May that corn genetically engineered to be resistant to the European corn borer may in fact prove deadly to the Monarch butterfly sparked media and public interest in the practice of using biotechnology to improve crop yields. Interest has gone far beyond the Monarch butterfly to national news outlets questioning the safety of the genetically engineered crops that have hit the market to date.

In the midst of this rising controversy, the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP), a non-profit organization conducting research and education programs on U.S. and global agricultural issues, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) collaborated on a report detailing the benefits of certain genetically engineered crops.

The report released this month highlighted the economic benefits of controlling insects by planting crops that had been genetically engineered to contain the insecticide enzyme from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The report concluded that Bt corn, cotton and potatoes reduce the need for pesticides and produce higher yields.

"These data stand as the Rock of Gibraltar to those who argue biotech agricultural products don't deliver any benefits," said Val Giddings, BIO's vice president for food and agriculture. "It is a rigorous piece of work that will withstand scrutiny."

The researchers at NCFAP, funded by BIO, examined the costs and benefits of using Bt corn vs. conventional hybrids. Corn is susceptible to the European corn borer, which typically has two life cycles each planting season.

The report details that in 1996, farmers who planted Bt corn would have gained $13.87 an acre planted over those who used conventional hybrids. The results were even more striking in 1997, when planting Bt corn resulted in an additional $37.24 an acre. In 1998, however, farmers planting the genetically engineered corn would have lost $4.63 an acre compared to planting conventional hybrids because it was a very low corn borer year.

"In 1998, the infestation was so light as a result of a natural downturn, the corn prices dropped below the threshold for using the more expensive Bt seed," Giddings said. "Overall, however, the farmers using Bt corn benefited."

The report also looked at Bt cotton, where the Bt enzyme battles the cotton bollworm, boll weevil and pink bollworm. Farmers using conventional cotton routinely spray their cotton fields with insecticides during the season to fend off those pests.

The NCFAP researchers found that cotton farmers received on average a return of $38.19 per acre on Bt cotton. The bulk of that savings came from the fact that farmers didn't need to spray millions of pounds of pesticides on their cotton fields to control the pests. The report estimates that 2 million pounds of pesticides weren't sprayed since the introduction of Bt cotton in 1996. In addition, the Bt cotton fields had a larger population of beneficial insects such as lady bugs.

The impact of Bt potatoes has been much less dramatic, largely since the pesticides used to control Colorado potato beetles are very effective. However, the report did note that farmers could reduce their need for insecticides dramatically with Bt potatoes.

Even with data showing Bt crops can increase yields and reduce the need for pesticides, the issue for biotechnology will remain consumer acceptance. In Europe, countries such as Holland and Spain readily accept genetically engineered crops while others, such as Great Britain, France and Germany, remain vocally opposed. According to Giddings, the U.S. is far more likely to accept these practices.

"The single most important thing we have going for us in the U.S. is a regulatory system that is transparent and accountable," Giddings said. "There is always the potential for some activist mischief, but I don't think we will face the opposition seen in parts of Europe."