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Monarch butterflies at risk
from genetically altered crops

Genetic engineering creates entirely new types of plants by altering the genetic "blueprint" of these crops. Cutting, joining, and transferring genes between unrelated species creates plants with unique qualities. At first glance, it appears to be a "miracle of science" however, if we look closer, we find these promises come with "side-effects." Some crops such as potatoes and corn have been genetically engineered to have the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin constantly present in the plant cell structure. These crops won’t need to be sprayed with toxic pesticides because the pesticide has actually been genetically engineered into the cell structure of the plants. Many people are concerned about the long-term effects of eating this toxin. Government agencies say it is safe. But they have said this before about DDT, EDB, and many pesticides in the past.

Studies at of Cornell University have implicated genetically altered corn in the deaths of nearly half of the Monarch caterpillars that ate milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from a new brand of genetically engineered corn. The news has many people wondering whether killer corn is such a good idea.

Laboratory tests conducted by a team of Cornell University researchers this spring The study has left scientists and concerned citizens with a burning question: If genetically altered corn pollen can bring such harm to the Monarch butterfly, what other unknown environmental and health troubles might it cause as well?

"The monarch butterfly fiasco just goes to show how little the U.S. government knows about the environmental effects of genetically engineered foods," said Craig Winters, Executive Director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods.

The Campaign is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt approval of genetically modified foods until their safety can be guaranteed.

Giant agricultural corporations, in an attempt to boost profits, have rushed several genetically modified foods into the marketplace. Government agencies have been quick to give the green light, despite inadequate consideration of the long-term health and environmental consequences.

In essence, big business has created, and the government allowed, a huge experiment in which consumers and the environment are guinea pigs.

The corn in question, which has been planted on 20 million acres of American farmlands since its introduction a few years ago, is genetically modified to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), an insecticide that kills European corn borers.

In laboratory tests, 44 percent of the Monarch caterpillars that ate leaves laced with Bt corn pollen died within four days. No caterpillar deaths were recorded among Monarchs that ate leaves with normal corn pollen or no pollen at all.

The surviving caterpillars that ate Bt-pollen-dusted leaves were much smaller and had smaller appetites than the caterpillars that ate regular leaves. The caterpillars that ate leaves dusted with Bt-pollen were less than half the size of the caterpillars that consumed leaves with no pollen.

In the spring, Monarch butterflies travel 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada, passing through America’s Corn Belt in the Midwest. Mating along the way, the Monarchs produce millions of caterpillars that feast on milkweed leaves, which frequently are covered with corn pollen blown by the wind from nearby cornfields. Many scientists are concerned about the possible impact Bt corn may have on Monarch populations.

Nineteen butterfly and moth species currently are on the EPA’s endangered species list. Some of them also may be at risk if they eat plants laced with Bt corn pollen.

What are the Dangers of
Genetically Engineered Foods?

One claim in support of these crops is that they will require less pesticides. This is only a half-truth. In many cases they will probably be getting higher levels of pesticide exposure, not less, as claimed by the manufacturer, because farmers normally do not spray potent herbicides directly on many crops. . Genetically engineered crops, such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans can be sprayed directly with herbicide, in this case Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. The goal of the manufacturer is to win a greater herbicide market-share for a proprietary product irrespective of the consequences. It is estimated that over 30% of our nation’s soybean crop is now genetically engineered.

In the case of the BT seeds, the boost to seed sales comes at the cost of damaging the usefulness of a key pest management product (the Bacillus thuringiensis based microbial insecticide) relied upon by many farmers, including most organic farmers, as a powerful alternative to insecticides. The Bt toxin is often sprayed on crops by organic farmers when they have insect infestations because it dissipates in a day or two. When genetically engineered into non-organic crops, it does not go away. Insects eat it and die. However, some insects develop immunity and so do their offspring. Organic farmers are genuinely concerned about how this could undermine their use of the Bt toxin in the future. And there is growing evidence that beneficial insects and birds may be poisoned by eating insects that have eaten the genetically engineered Bt crops.

The irony is that recent experimental trials have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase the yield of crops. A recent study by the USDA Economic Research Service shows that in 1998 yields were not significantly different in engineered versus non-engineered crops in 12 of 18 crop/region combinations. This was confirmed in another study examining more than 8,000 field trials, where it was found that Roundup Ready soybean seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar conventionally bred varieties (USDA l999). . Other evidence shows that the nutritional quality or value of herbicide resistant soybeans is reduced, and that they contained less isoflavones, an important phytoestrogen present in soybeans, believed to protect women from a number of cancers.

There are many other concerns about genetically engineered foods. These include the long-term health effects on humans, damage to the ecosystem, and the creation of allergens and toxins. Plus, there are many religious and moral concerns when genes from animals are used in the gene-splicing process. And there is the issue of "counterfeit freshness" from foods where the enzymes that are responsible for rotting have been inactivated. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, recently halted its process for approving several genetically modified crops in light of the Monarch butterfly news.

The Campaign is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to convince the government to label genetically engineered foods and to halt approvals of genetically altered crops until they can be proven safe.. They believe that people have the right to choose whether or not to purchase genetically mutated foods. Letters that you can send to your political leaders may be found on the Campaign’s Web site at www.thecampaign.org.

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