"It's sort of the Bambi of the insect world. It's big and gawdy and gets a lot of good press. And you've got school kids across the country raising them in jars."

SIRC – Media Watch 03-06-99

Bt and the Butterfly

A recent piece in the Financial Times suggests that recent twists and turns over the potential health effects of GM foods have been surpassed by renewed environmental concerns. Cornell University's study found that Bt maize pollen killed the caterpillars of the Monarch butterflies, which thrive on the milkweed plant in abundance on the edges of US Corn Belt. Their findings have re-fuelled the environmental section of the GM debate primarily because the Monarch Butterfly has become a symbol of conservation. As Professor Marlin Rice, Iowa State University, points out in the Washington Post: "It's sort of the Bambi of the insect world. It's big and gawdy and gets a lot of good press. And you've got school kids across the country raising them in jars." Had it been any other kind of insect, or indeed any other type of butterfly this may not have been a significant, but future headlines such as "Biotech vs. the Bambi of insects" are bound to affect US opinion of genetic modification.

Mind you, if it had been any other type of butterfly (a lesser known Republican strain?) maybe Prince Charles would not have enlightened us with his contributions on the GM issue. There again that may have been influenced by the publication of GM test sites by Friends of the Earth this week that revealed one such site as being within 20 miles of HRH's own estate. While Tony Blair is said to have valued his contribution, the Times and the Guardian were less impressed and both called for our future King to detach himself from politics. Meanwhile architects throughout the country breathed a sigh of relief and GM supporters took comfort in the knowledge that for once the broadsheets' comments in part matched their own.

An unusual article in the New York Times asks us to heed a Warning from the Butterflies. While you would be excused for interpreting this as a reiteration of environmental issues the piece actually expresses a concern about the future of Bt pesticides. GM is once again the accused but the plaintiff on this occasion is an agricultural chemical. "It will be a tragedy if the use of transgenic corn, potatoes and cotton by conventional farmers ends up destroying the effectiveness of a safe, natural pesticide that is of great value to many small farmers and all organic farmers." Before we mourn a possible decline of Bt use, it has not been afforded the same degree of reverence elsewhere in this week's media. The New Scientist reports a study by French government scientists that has related inhalation of Bt spores to lung damage and internal bleeding in rats. Robert Haward of the Soil Association suggested that more caution may have to be exercised by farmers administering these pesticides and that they should wear masks. Wise and sensible words indeed but they are rather missing the point. It would be more than a little ironic if it turned out that Bt, the environmentally friendly organic pesticide of choice for the last thirty years, might actually be hazardous to its user.