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Date:

August 3, 2000

Subject:

Column on Greenpeace-EPA lawsuit

 

No panic necessary
By Steven Milloy
Washington Times, August 4, 2000

"Saturday Night Live" fans may recall the self-righteous commentary of one
Emily Litella, who invariably concluded with a sheepish, "Never mind,"
when she finally realized she didn't know what she was talking about. Now
it's the environmental group Greenpeace whose turn it is to say, "Never
mind."

In 1997 Greenpeace petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to
cancel its registrations of so-called biotech corn, cotton and potato
plants, which had been genetically improved with a gene from the soil
organism Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to ward off harmful insects. The case
was part of a larger campaign by activists, more anti-corporation than
they are pro-environment, to try to generate doubts about promising but
little-known technology by raising esoteric questions about its long-term
effects. The implication, as usual, was that they, not scientists and
regulators, had given such questions the consideration they deserve.

But the implication was wrong. The agency had done its research, and what
it said in its 107-page response to Greenpeace was this: "EPA is aware of
no data indicating that unreasonable adverse effects on the environment
have occurred during the period that Bt crops have been registered and
used (since 1995). Moreover, EPA has no reason to believe that such
effects may occur during the continued duration of the current
registrations."

Consider more specific complaints from Greenpeace. Activists would have
the public believe that pollen from genetically modified crops would drift
through the environment, transferring genes into
wild plants and creating "superweeds."

EPA answered that it had considered the possibility but found concern
unwarranted. The likelihood of such
movement, the agency said, is "almost non-existent because compatible
weedy relatives of Bt crops either do not occur in the United States or
are isolated from areas of commercial production. Where compatible weedy
relatives do exist in isolated geographic pockets, EPA has imposed
stringent sale and distribution restrictions to prevent even the
possibility of transgene movement to weedy relatives."

In other words, it is biologically impossible to crossbreed corn, cotton
or potatoes with wild plants that grow where crops grow. Seed breeders
have known that for generations. You'd think Greenpeace would have known
that, too.

Greenpeace further argued that when Bt crops decay, the Bt is released
into the soil, posing a threat
to soil organisms, such as earthworms. It cited a laboratory study which
shows Bt binding to clay in soil. Not to worry, said EPA: Soils are the
natural habitat of all Bt species (Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil
bacterium); therefore Bt is already naturally present during the
crop-growing season and constantly available for ingestion by all soil
invertebrates.

Could biotechnology wind up killing beneficial insects? Greenpeace cited a
single study showing that lacewing larvae, which sometimes feed on corn
borer larvae, could be adversely affected if they ate corn
borers that had fed on Bt corn. EPA pointed out that the lacewing larvae
in the research were forced to eat
nothing but sick and dying corn borer larvae, which may have made them
sick. The lacewing was not
given a choice of diet, which it has in real life.

The overwhelming majority of research on the issue does not show
significant detrimental effects due to Bt
endotoxin on the lacewing. Faced with this barrage, Greenpeace abruptly
dropped its case. It asked a federal court to cancel its threatened
lawsuit against EPA.

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