By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON - The biotechnology industry weathered the controversy surrounding a cloned sheep to see its endeavors met with public acclaim. However, the industry may have met its match in the Monarch butterfly.
It's hard to imagine that a lowly butterfly could bring an entire industry to its collective knees but, in its extreme, that is exactly the concern that the biotechnology industry has about a scientific report published last month in the journal Nature.
A scientist from Cornell University claimed in the report that eating the pollen from genetically engineered corn plants is fatal to the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. The news that biotech corn could prove fatal to the beloved Monarch, which journeys from Canada to winter quarters in California and northern Mexico, raced from national media outlets to the tiniest of local papers. (See BioWorld Today, May 24, 1999, p. 1.)
In the wake of the furor, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is responding to each and every publication of the story in an effort to inform the public that biotechnology in agriculture is preserving the environment rather than destroying it.
"We're dealing with the 'Bambi' of the insect world," BIO President Carl Feldbaum said. "Sorting this out is a much more delicate and difficult matter than what we faced with Dolly. But, the facts are that the primary threat to the Monarch butterfly isn't [biotech], it's loss of habit."
In 1997, when a cloned sheep named Dolly took the world by storm, public perception of the advance quickly turned from a "Boys From Brazil" scenario to a keen focus on the potential for new medical advancements. The transition to general public acceptance is likely to be slower for agbiotech.
"The biotech critics are just trumpeting the Monarch butterfly news," Feldbaum said. "And, people have this mystic sense about butterflies that you just don't mess with."
While Dolly raised the possibility that some twisted millionaire might create endless iterations of himself, the biotech industry was able to use the news to illustrate how such technology could be used to create new organs specifically matched to replace failing ones. Scientists as well as senators have talked of using the technology to cure diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Creating the case for corn that is genetically engineered to contain the insecticide enzyme from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is more difficult.
Bt is a common soil-borne bacterium that produces an enzyme that is an insecticide to caterpillars from the doptera family, including the European corn bore and the Monarch butterfly larvae. Bt bacteria have been sprayed on crops by organic farmers and backyard gardeners for decades, Feldbaum pointed out. This use of Bt gave rise to the idea to genetically engineer corn to produce its own Bt enzyme and protect itself from a major pest.
Monarch butterfly larvae don't feed on corn or corn pollen in the wild. Instead, they prefer to munch on the leaves of milkweed, which often grows near corn. The Cornell researcher postulated that the results of his laboratory study could mean that the increasing use of Bt corn could place the Monarch at risk in the wild by contaminating milkweed leaves with Bt corn pollen.
None of this, however, was news to either the industry that developed Bt corn or to the agencies that regulated its development - the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Critics have said that the U.S. regulatory system isn't paying attention to this, which is patently false," Feldbaum said. "This has been extensively studied and both the EPA and the USDA determined that this threat was minimal."
In fact, Feldbaum noted that the primary threat to the Monarch is the loss of habit, some of which is the result of the use of pesticides that Bt corn has reduced.
Convincing Americans that the greater crop yields are worth even a minimal risk to the Monarch may prove an enormous task. By and large, Americans have lost touch with the agriculture industry.
"People in the U.S. think that their food comes from the grocery store shrink-wrapped and foil-sealed," Feldbaum said. "It's not like in Europe where you can be in the city looking out your office window and see fields."
The U.S., however, also is unlike Europe in that there is less mistrust among people when it comes to genetically modified foods.
"Europe is less accepting of agricultural biotech, that's true," Feldbaum said. "That attitude is based on an ignorance of what agbiotech is. And it will spread to the U.S. if we don't educate the public. The good thing is that ultimately the facts are on our side."