New EPA regulations call for caution on biotech crops

Voluntary protections draw criticism of some


The Environmental Protection Agency has announced a series of new regulations aimed at reducing the environmental risk of corn genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide. The decision Friday, awaited by farmers, environmentalists and the biotech industry, was viewed by many as an acknowledgment by the agency of the rising concern over the safety of biotech crops.

The corn became a rallying point for environmentalists and opponents of genetic engineering in May when a Cornell University study found that the corn's pollen could kill monarch butterfly caterpillars in the laboratory. The corn carries a gene derived from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produces Bt toxin, which kills pests that eat the plant.

While calling the evidence for harm to monarch butterflies preliminary, the agency is directing biotech seed companies to ask farmers to voluntarily protect butterflies that are not pests by planting traditional corn around the edges of Bt cornfields. That would create a buffer to prevent toxic pollen from blowing into butterfly habitats.

The agency also announced that farmers would be required to plant at least 20 percent of their corn as non-Bt corn. Academic scientists have been urging the agency to enact such a measure for years to slow the evolution of resistance to the Bt toxin, one of the few natural insecticides available to organic farmers.

While academic scientists and environmentalists largely welcomed the rules, to be enacted this spring, some criticized the agency for seeking voluntary protections.

"I'm very disappointed," said Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Goldburg expressed concern that biotech companies had been given the responsibility for encouraging farmers to protect monarchs.

"Given that the companies involved have spent the last six months belittling any risks associated with Bt corn pollen, this is not something that I find easy to believe will happen," Goldburg said.

Seed companies and biotech industry groups have vigorously attacked the Cornell study, taking issue with its methodology and the conclusion that the Bt corn pollen is harmful to monarch butterflies.

John Losey, an author of the Cornell study, praised the agency's actions. "It seems like a good interim approach while we gather more data," he said. While the pollen can kill monarchs in the laboratory, it is unknown to what degree they are harmed by Bt pollen in the wild.

David Andow, a University of Minnesota ecologist who studies the evolution of resistance to pesticides, called the measures "a real step forward."

Scientists have long argued that farmers should plant traditional corn to provide a refuge for insect pests that are susceptible to Bt toxin to help reduce the risk of resistant strains developing.

In addition to its announcement Friday, the EPA sent out a notice last month requiring seed companies to initiate studies to answer detailed questions about what level of risk the Bt corn poses to butterflies in the wild.

Numerous other studies are under way on the safety of genetically modified corn, which was planted on more than 20 million acres last year and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in seed sales annually.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.