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The Monarch butterfly and GM crops


Frankenstein Fears Misplaced

In The Times (2) on 14 December (p12), there was a report that the campaign against Genetically Modified (GM) foods was based on a misreading of some research on the Monarch butterfly. Mark Henderson wrote in the "Threat That Never Was" that the misreading was not confined to the Greens, though it was explicit in the pristine Nature article that GM crops were a threat to the butterflies in the wild.

The Monarch butterfly is a fragile moth, but GM crops do not really threaten to affect it. The butterflies emerge every year from Mexico to the Corn Belt of the USA and Canada where they lay their eggs. In 1999 a laboratory study suggested that they could all be killed off by GM maze. The Greens reacted with a campaign against GM food. John Losey and his team at the University of Cornell fed some Monarch butterflies pollen from GM maze and the result was that their growth was first stunted then, after four days, some 44% of the sample were dead.

The campaign that followed led to many supermarkets, such as Iceland, boycotting GM foods and many more considered whether to follow suit. The long-standing broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, attacked it as irrational, and in reaction many Greens, with their usual anti-rational attitude to any free speech that contradicts them, called for him to be sacked. In August 1999 another study at the Iowa State University was held to confirm the earlier conclusion. Lord Melchett of Greenpiece led a campaign of invading the trial GM crop farms to destroy them. When he went to court, he was let off as it was considered that the GM crops were a menace well checked. A fictional account running in the Archers had the same result in their fictional court case.

But they had all misread the original article, for it used a sample of Monarch butterflies as a substitute for the somewhat similar European corn borer to see if Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) would control them. They eat a great deal of crops in the USA despite their name. The Monarch butterflies were captured and they were only given Bt to eat but that is not how things would be in the wild.

A conference meeting in November 2000 at Chicago brought together entomologists from the Universities of Minnesota, Maryland, Iowa, Michigan and Ontario. They found no significant difference between the Monarch butterfly survival rates in the GM areas compared with the areas of conventional crops. "If there are any differences, they are not very profound," said Richard Hellmich, an entomologist at the University of Iowa and the US Department of Agriculture. A University of Maryland study actually held that the Monarch butterflies did much better with GM crops than with crops sprayed with pesticide.

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The campaign that followed led to many supermarkets, such as Iceland, boycotting GM foods and many more considered whether to follow suit. The long-standing broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, attacked it as irrational, and in reaction many Greens, with their usual anti-rational attitude to any free speech that contradicts them, called for him to be sacked.