Social Implications

A Disagreement with the Monarch Butterfly Findings

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There was an interesting publication in the Washington Times on September 20, 1999. The author, John E. Foster is a full time professor of entomology at the Universityof Nebraska. Foster has had 30 years of experience in workingwith insect issues, and also sits on a panel of leading entomology experts studying insect resistance management. Considering the respectful background of Foster, it is surprising that he would take such a position on the monarch butterfly findings. His article, entitled "Butterflies Bearing Grenades," tries to degrade the credibility of the experiments recently conducted at Cornell University which found that Bt corn pollen can poison monarchs and possibly other insects.

He states within the first paragraph of his article that the monarch butterfly hype in press releases were exploited by activists, and gave the "erroneous impression that science had overlooked something important in reviewing the potential risks of biotechnology (Foster)."Foster concludes that the story on Bt corn endangering the monarch butterflies is based on trash science. He values biotechnology, as do many other scientists believing that there is unnecessary concern among the public, and that "credible scientists have to mop up the mess" that has been created by bad publicity.

Foster claims that in "the case of the Monarch butterflies, there probably was not an entomologist in the world who was not aware that corn pollen containing the Bt gene could harm butterflies if butterflies ate corn pollen, whichthey don't (Foster)." This point makes activists and many other environmentalists skeptical. The point is not that monarchs deliberately pollinate the corn. Rather, it is the pollen, which is wind-blown that most effects the insects. When the pollen lands on the plants that caterpillars and butterflies are most attracted to, there are fatal implications. Foster ignores the fact that the study conducted at Cornell University is significant. The study has helped show that the biological implacts of GM foods are not limited to the possibility that genetically modified traits can be transferred to wild relatives, but that beneficial insects can also be negatively impacted.

Foster choses a distinct side of the GM debate when he states: "university researchers with limited resources end up dropping what they were doing and devote attention to providing the data demanded by a concerned public and regulators under pressure (Foster)." He continues by saying that "this is a poor way to set priorities for scientific research, but it is what happens when we conduct science by press release (Foster)." His statement ignores the fact that there are still many tests that need to be conducted in order to prove that all GM methods are safe and secure from environmental damage, let alone negative social implications in third world countries.

Foster is correct when he states his beliefs concerning the media'srepresentation of the GM issue. There are certain mis-representations, biases, and suggestions being made leading the public to be concerned. But isn't the public's right to know what can potentially harm them? Thus far, a consistency in media has suggested that there are hazards involved with biotechnology. Legally, economically, and socially there are reasons to be concerned. Foster's moment in the spotlight has also caused problems, as he spends time in his article backing up his claim with nothing substantial.

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