The media missed some major biotech corn-monarch butterfly news last week. A casual observer might conclude they were too wrapped up in the butterfly ballot controversy in Florida, but a more likely explanation lies in the unfortunate media doctrine, "Good news isn't news."
Corn has been big news from Squanto to Monsanto. The Algonquin Indian Squanto made possible the Pilgrims' first successful corn harvest and Thanksgiving. Biotech firms like Monsanto now make it possible to grow more corn on less acreage and with less chemical insecticide use.
Biotech corn drew headlines in March 1999 and in August 2000 when the media trumpeted alarmist results from two laboratory studies reporting the corn might harm monarch butterfly larvae. Headlines such as "High-tech corn killing butterflies" and "New study confirms genetic corn kills butterflies" appeared in newspapers around the world. Wire services and television networks broadcast stories reporting a great hazard had been unwittingly unleashed on the environment.
Not so fast, though, cautioned most entomologists. They warned against drawing conclusions from simple laboratory studies in which caged monarch caterpillars were forced to eat high doses of corn pollen containing an insecticidal protein.
It was always known that the Bacillus thuringiensis protein in the so-called Bt corn could harm butterfly larvae if they ate enough of it. Bt corn, after all, is designed to kill harmful caterpillars that tunnel into corn stalks and chew on corn ears.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency knew when it approved Bt corn that desirable butterfly and moth species do not eat corn. It assumed any risk from pollen would be outweighed by the benefits of reducing insecticide use, which definitely knocks out monarchs — along with ladybugs, spiders and other beneficial insects.
When a Cornell University experiment demonstrated what was already known, the media overreacted and people demanded proof that Bt corn was safe for monarchs. So a series of field studies were launched in the summer of 1999 at several universities and research institutions.
The results of the first round of research were presented at a workshop that November. The results indicated little, if any, threat to monarch populations. But some questions remained. So an additional $200,000 worth of studies were commissioned, and more researchers took to the field during the summer of 2000.
The results of the latest research were presented at a Department of Agriculture-sponsored scientific workshop open to the public last week. The USDA heard from a number of researchers who are pretty much convinced that pollen from Bt corn is not a threat to monarch populations.
If you didn't hear about the results, you're not the only one. In fact, unless you attended the conference or read the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you'd never know the workshop occurred.
For two days, university and USDA researchers reported on their field research. They found monarchs used cornfields more than previously assumed. But they also found pollen levels in Bt cornfields weren't high enough to harm monarch caterpillars that might be feeding on milkweeds there.
The Star-Tribune's Sharon Schmickle was the only reporter on hand when the researchers presented their results. Not surprisingly, the Star-Tribune is the only media outlet to report the positive findings.
The researchers found monarch larvae actually fared better inside Bt cornfields than in natural areas, apparently because there is less pressure from predators in the cornfield. Needless to say, monarchs in Bt cornfields did much better than monarchs in fields sprayed with insecticides.
Another important finding was that most monarch larva development occurs before or after corn plants shed their pollen. So most monarch caterpillars have limited exposure to pollen. Those present during pollination almost always encounter harmless doses.
"This is not a very big issue," workshop chairman Dr. Eldon Ortman of Purdue University told Schmickle. The research still needs to be peer-reviewed and published before a scientific consensus is formed.
Is that what the media is waiting for? Or is there no headline value in the mounting evidence that biotech corn delivers improved yields of a high-quality, safe food and a safer environment for monarch butterflies?
Also, no activist groups attended the workshop, though they've exploited the butterfly issue for almost two years. While feigning concern about the monarch, they simply used the butterfly as a means to scare public about biotechnology and to raise funds.
Over the past 12 months there have been more than 1,000 media accounts mentioning the alleged threat to the monarch. It's interesting that on a day when extensive research goes a long way toward putting their concerns to rest, the activists and the news media were nowhere to be found.