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September 9, 2001


Experts, Monarchs, Testing, European Union


Today's Topics in AgBioView.

* AgBiotech Experts Media List
* Data on Genetically Modified Corn Reports Say Threat to Monarch Butterflies Is 'Negligible'
* Testing GM
* Safety assessments of genetically modified crops
* EU: Biotech Experts To Address EU Farm Ministers
* Butterfly Survivor

Email your response to

AgBiotech Experts Media List


If you are a journalist and would like more information on ag-biotech issues, please feel free to contact our scientists. Most of them are regular contributors to the AgBioView Discussion forum and are experts in their respective fields. Below you will find their personal information, areas of expertise and email addresses. If you are unable to decide as to who to target your question, please send it to prakash@agbioworld.org and your query will be forwarded to the appropriate expert.




Data on Genetically Modified Corn Reports Say Threat to Monarch Butterflies Is 'Negligible'

New York Times
September 8, 2001

Genetically modified corn poses a "negligible" risk to monarch butterflies, according to a package of six papers that will soon be published in a scientific journal.

The papers, the most comprehensive peer-reviewed publications on this issue, could lay to rest one of the biggest controversies over genetically modified crops.

"I don't think there's a need to consider monarchs at risk due to this technology," said Mark K. Sears, a professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelth in Ontario, a lead author on one of the papers.

Drafts of the papers were released late yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will be published next week, ahead of an Oct. 1 release that had been planned.

The early release came because the Environmental Protection Agency is scrambling to defuse criticism that it has been planning to renew the permits for these genetically modified crops even though the data on the butterfly impact had not yet been widely released to the public.

The E.P.A. has been planning to announce its decision on the crops — corn and cotton engineered to kill pests that feed on them — by Sept. 30, when the old permits expire. But that would have been a day before the monarch butterfly studies were to be published.

Critics of genetically engineered foods said the timetable represented an attempt to stifle debate on the crops. So on Thursday, the E.P.A. asked the journal to publish the papers earlier.

The E.P.A. is also considering postponing its decision date on the crops, said a spokesman, David Deegan. But he said the agency could not wait too long because farmers needed to know by fall what seeds would be available for next year's planting.

The crops in question, known as BT corn and cotton, contain a bacterial gene that causes the plants to produce a toxin that kills pests. The crops with the BT toxin are one of the two major products of the plant biotechnology industry, the other being crops with a gene for herbicide resistance. About 19 percent of the corn and 35 percent of the cotton planted in the United States in 2000 had the BT gene, according to the Department of Agriculture.

But controversy has swirled around the crops since 1999, when Cornell University scientists reported that some monarch butterfly caterpillars had been killed when they ate pollen from BT corn in a laboratory experiment.

The new studies, financed by the agricultural biotechnology industry and the government but carried out mainly by academic scientists, address whether the effects seen in the laboratory are also found in the field.

The papers say there is little risk to monarchs from the two main types of BT corn grown because the pollen is not toxic in the concentrations that monarch larvae would encounter in the fields.

The studies did find that one type of BT corn, known as Event 176, would harm some butterflies because it has extremely high levels of the bacterial toxin in its pollen. But that type of BT corn is rarely planted and is being withdrawn from the market.

Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group critical of genetically engineered crops, said the studies showed the E.P.A. had not adequately assessed the risks before approving Event 176. The monarchs "lucked out," she said because Event 176 proved unpopular with farmers.

Still, the studies could help lay to rest much of the controversy. The E.P.A. is widely expected to renew the permits for the crops. The question, however, is what kind of requirements growers will have to adhere to, like how much of their fields must be reserved for nonmodified crops to prevent insects from becoming resistant to the BT toxin.

Until now, the study results, while they have been supplied to the E.P.A. by the industry, have been classified as "confidential business information" by the agency. The information has been kept from widespread public view so as not to jeopardize the chances that the papers would be published. Many scientific journals will not accept papers that have been too widely disseminated beforehand.

One scientist involved in the butterfly research, Dr. Karen S. Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota, called for the E.P.A. to delay its decision until opponents of genetically modified crops had a chance to review the data.

"The procedure has stifled thoughtful scientific debate on this issue," Dr. Oberhauser, an ecology professor, wrote to the E.P.A. last Saturday. She said that while she agreed with the overall conclusion that the main types of BT corn did not pose a risk to the monarchs, she said that the industry's summary of the data, which the E.P.A. had been relying on, contained several misleading statements in support of that conclusion.

Some of the other scientists involved in the research disagreed with Professor Oberhauser. Dr. Galen P. Dively, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, said the scientists had all signed statements saying that the industry summaries submitted to E.P.A. accurately represented the scientific findings. "I don't understand why the critics are so concerned about it," he said.

Dr. Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the agency "betrayed its promise" to have a transparent decision-making process. "The monarch issue was probably the biggest environmental issue associated with any genetically modified crop thus far, and it seemed appropriate that the public should see the data before the decision is made," she said.

Biotechnology industry officials said that only 27 pages of information had been kept confidential out of the hundreds submitted. Moreover, starting about two weeks ago, even those 27 pages could be viewed by the public in 11 E.P.A. reading rooms around the country. But those who view the data must sign an agreement not to copy it or discuss it with others, although they can submit confidential comments to the E.P.A.

The E.P.A. routinely requires that some information not be disclosed to a company's competitors. But this extra nondisclosure agreement, drawn up by the agricultural biotechnology industry, appears to be unusual, and some environmentalists said it was too restrictive.

Stanley H. Abramson, a lawyer in Washington who represents agricultural biotechnology companies, said the industry saw the study results as favorable and would have been happy to have them released earlier but did not want to jeopardize the academic scientists' chances of publication.

But Dr. Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, the editor in chief of The Proceedings of the National Academy, said he was not aware of the nondisclosure agreement. Dr. Cozzarelli, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that if the data had been open for public viewing, "it would not have compromised publication in the slightest."

Date: 8 Sep 2001 16:46:03 -0000
From: Andrew Apel
To: AgBioWorld-feedback-1190@lb.bcentral.com
Subject: Testing GM


It’s unfortunate that you dismiss citations to peer-reviewed papers on
the safety testing of GM foods as “fogging” and use that designation to
excuse your refusal to read them. You may find the following much more
digestible than those dry research papers: First Fruit: The Creation of
the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. Martineau,
Belinda. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001.269 pp., hardcover, US$24.95. Contact Ann
Pryor, phone (212) 904-4078, fax (212) 904-4091, email

You make some interesting statements: (1) GM crops are not subject to
pharmaceutical-style testing and (2) Pharmeutical companies, such as
Novartis, do not carry out the same thorough testing on GM plants as they
do on their pharmaceuticals, and because such testing is not required
in law.

You should note that the pharmaceutical-style testing of GM crops you
refer to in (1) does not imply that they are subject to the same tests
as pharmaceuticals you refer to in (2). Indeed, different
pharmaceuticals are tested in different ways, because different pharmaceuticals are
intended to work in different ways, hence different tests must be
crafted for different pharmaceuticals.

“Pharmaceutical-style” testing, in spite of your assertion in (2), is
indeed required by law. And that testing requires a finding of no
evidence of harm – i.e., a finding that GM crops are at least as safe as
those already on the market. If you read Martineau’s book, you will
discover how much research that actually takes and how high the “substantial
equivalence” standard actually is.

You seem to hold the testing of pharmaceuticals in higher esteem than
the testing of GM crops. If that is so, I urge you to compare the number
of illnesses and deaths from pharmaceuticals to the number of illnesses
and deaths from GM crops. You will note that, perhaps paradoxically,
testing of pharmaceuticals appears less effective than testing of GM
crops, because those crops have produced no illness or death. Perhaps
pharmaceuticals should be subjected to “GM crop-style testing” instead.

You also say (3) “It has been suggested to me by many GM proponents
that "no evidence of harm" is equivalent to "evidence of safety", which is
of course not the case.” Actually, that is the case. As we all know,
evidence of absence is not absence of evidence.

Finally, your messages asking about GM food safety are, indeed, spam.
You ask for evidence that GM crops have been safety tested, it is
offered to you, you refuse to read it, and repeat your request, over and over
and over. You say I’m guilty of name-calling? Saying I haven’t provided
evidence of GM crops having been safety tested, when I have, is
name-calling, too.

Anyone who seriously wants safety assessments of genetically modified crops can start at the AgBioWorld web site at:


EU: Biotech Experts To Address EU Farm Ministers

September 10, 2001

BRUSSELS, Sept 10 (Reuters) - European Union farm ministers will hear expert
views on the benefits and pitfalls of biotech next week including a call that
developing countries be given a chance to grow their own genetically modified

Current EU president Belgium has already announced its pro-GM stance and has
invited five scientists from around the world to speak at an informal meeting
of farm ministers in the eastern Belgian town of Alden Biesen on Monday and
Tuesday. The meeting follows European Commission President Romano Prodi's
comments last week that the 15-nation bloc needed a new coherent strategy to
deal with biotechnology in the 21st century if it was not to miss its
industrial and economic benefits.

Belgium's former agriculture minister Jaak Gabriels is expected to return to
chair the meeting. He has said he hopes the views will act as a counter-balance
to the environmental lobby, which he believes has virtually had a free hand in
forming public opinion on the issue.

One of the scientists, John Manyo, who works with the Food and Agriculture
Organisation in Africa, will highlight the need for more research into GM crop
use in developing countries.

Belgian officials said he is expected to stress the need for Third World
countries to be able to grow their own GM crops rather than merely relying on
imports from developed countries.

He will also criticise the biotech multinationals for not considering the real
needs of poor countries, when choosing the crops on which biotech research is

"He will highlight the potential but also warn of the dangers of manipulation
and increasing the dependency of developing countries on the multinationals,"
one official said.

Ministers will also get an update on the biotech situation in China from a
Beijing university scientist, who is expected to contrast the differences in
commercialising GM crops in the east and the west, and call for global approach
to risk assessment.

A British expert, Phil Dale from the John Innes Centre, will explain the
impact of GM crops on biodiversity and the environment, a New Zealand scientist
will look a the potential for biofuels and Karen Dodds from Canada will focus
on health and labelling issues.

EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne, who will attend the meeting alongside
EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler, has recently unveiled plans for the strict
labelling of GM products, drawing criticism from some of the EU's trading partners.

>From the AgBioView archives:

Butterfly Survivor

August 25, 2000
By Steven Milloy

It's been a big week for CBS television. Not only did the network air the
grand finale of the popular Survivor, but CBS News broke news about the
Monarch butterfly edition of Survivor. The subject: How many butterflies will survive when plucked from their natural environment and forced to live on a toxic island?

"It is the first field study to show that America's favorite insect, the
monarch butterfly, can die from the pollen of gene-altered corn," reported
CBS News' Wyatt Andrews about a new study out of Iowa State University.

But Andrews overreacted. The new study is as much a "field study" - and as
realistic - as Survivor. The alarm over biotech corn and Monarch
butterflies started last year when Cornell University researchers reported
pollen from so-called "Bt corn" killed Monarch larvae under laboratory
conditions. Conditions that including forcing the Monarchs to eat toxic
pollen - or not eat at all.

Bt corn has been genetically modified to carry a protein toxic to the
European corn borer, a devastating pest. The protein is toxic to other
moths and butterflies, but they don't eat corn pollen. Before Bt corn was
approved, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded Monarch larvae
would have little exposure to the pollen.

Amidst last year's media hysteria - "Engineered Corn Kills Butterflies,
Study Says," was USA Today's headline - scientists said no evidence showed
Monarchs in the wild would ever consume harmful amounts of the pollen. In
the wake of that perspective and further research, the alarm subsided.

But since media sensationalism never goes out of style, the new study
easily resurrected the butterfly scare.

Iowa State University researchers - led by a graduate student - again
reported Bt corn pollen may be toxic to butterfly larvae. It's being
called a "field study," but there was very little "field work" involved.
The researchers put potted milkweed plants, the main food of Monarch
butterfly larvae, in and around Bt corn test plots. When Bt corn pollen
fell on the milkweed leaves, the researchers removed the leaves to a
laboratory where leaf sections about the size of a fingernail were placed
in lab dishes. The researchers put a Monarch larva on each tiny section.
Two days later, the researchers counted how many larvae died.
Some "field study." The larvae had no choice of food. They couldn't move
to clean leaf surfaces. Rain couldn't wash the pollen away. The
researchers placed the larvae on the top sides of the leaf sections when,
in the wild, the larvae would most likely be hatched on the underside,
away from pollen.

Even so, only 2 percent of the larvae died after two days.

Worse still, the Iowa State researchers used the type of Bt corn pollen
most toxic to Monarch larvae. Called "Event 176," it is about 5 times
more toxic than pollen from other Bt corn varieties. But it accounts only
for about 2 percent of the Bt corn market and is being phased out by its
producer, Novartis Seeds Inc. Scientists know from extensive research that
Monarch larvae and other beneficial insects can withstand much higher
doses of the pollen from the Bt corn that farmers usually plant.

Even so, the Iowa State researchers reported that beyond one meter from
the cornfield, no sample of Bt corn pollen, including from around Event
176 fields, exceeded the dose that could harm the Monarch larvae.

Not surprisingly, the media overlooked these key facts - and it's not the
first time.

Dr. Mark Sears of Canada's University of Guelph reported last February
that levels of Bt corn pollen measured at the edge of cornfields had no
effect on Monarch larvae. And Sears measured essentially no pollen five
meters away from cornfields. His study received almost no media attention.

There was scant coverage of this summer's University of Illinois field
study, which reported Bt corn pollen didn't harm black swallowtail
butterfly larvae placed on host plants in and around Bt cornfields.
Little attention was paid to a recent EPA report reviewing the safety of
Bt corn for non-target species. This report was so convincing that
Greenpeace withdrew its lawsuit challenging the EPA's approval of Bt corn.
The withdrawal, news by any standard, received no coverage.

There was some media coverage last November when 2 researchers from
several universities met near Chicago to present the results of actual
field studies of Monarch butterflies. None of those studies have been
published yet. The researchers want to collect two summers' worth of data
and will finish this summer. But at the meeting, heavily covered by the
media, the researchers presented preliminary data indicating Monarchs
aren't at risk from Bt corn, including:

· The concentration of Bt corn pollen drops off very rapidly a short
distance from the cornfield.
· The pollen concentration found on milkweed leaves near cornfields
generally isn't sufficient to harm Monarch larvae and other non-target
moths and butterflies.
· Monarchs apparently don't like Bt corn pollen and avoid it when
· Cornfields have very little milkweed.
· Climatic conditions and other factors greatly reduce exposure to pollen
in the wild.

New York Times' reporter Carol Kaesuk Yoon covered the meeting, but still
reported this week, "Now, in the first study published on the subject
since the debate began, scientists from Iowa State University say plants
growing in and near the corn fields are being dusted with enough toxic
pollen to kill monarch caterpillars that feed on them."

She is technically correct by qualifying the study as "published." But did
Yoon simply forget the trip she made to cover the November meeting?

Also overlooked (ignored?) was Dr. Anthony Shelton, associate director of
research at Cornell University, who was very critical of the Cornell study
even though it was conducted at his own university. Shelton says the Iowa
State researchers make "conclusions that exceed their data and some of
their statements are simply off the mark."

"They do not provide any evidence that [a toxic] dose would be encountered
by Monarchs in the field because they lack ... the biological data on
milkweed distribution and the occurrence of Monarchs," Shelton said. "More
detailed and extensive field studies are being done by a group of
independent scientists from the U.S. and Canada. So far, they have failed
to see the effects predicted (by the Iowa State authors)," he added.

It seems Bt corn research only sees the light of day when researchers kill
Monarch butterfly larvae through unrealistic conditions. It's not good
science. But, like Survivor, it makes good television.

- Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato
Institute and publisher of http://www.Junkscience.com.