New York Times
December 19, 2000
Last week, more than a decade after the federal government allowed the first release of a genetically engineered organism into the environment, researchers concluded that scientists still cannot say with any precision what the ecological effects - either good or bad - of such genetically modified organisms might be.
The findings, published in Science, raise questions about why so little is known and whether some key questions about risk are, in practical terms, answerable.
For example, some scientists have estimated that answering just a single question of risk for a single organism - whether a type of biotech corn harms the monarch butterfly - would cost $2 million to $3 million, more than the Agriculture Department typically grants each year for the study of environmental risk. And if questions cannot be answered, where do we go from here?
Questions about risk first emerged when genetically engineered organisms started making their way out of the laboratory and into the public consciousness in the late 1980's. Men in spacesuits were assigned to release the first genetically engineered organisms into the wide world: bacteria sprayed on strawberries to protect them from frost. Soon afterward uneasy shoppers shunned the first genetically engineered crop, the ill-fated Flavr Savr tomato, whose only crime was a foreign gene for longer shelf life.
Today such organisms seem almost quaint as biotech salmon grow to market size in half the normal time and genetically modified goats make human blood proteins in their milk. And an international debate has sprung up over the value of these organisms, with participation from such unlikely quarters as the Vatican and Prince Charles.
But while biotechnology has raced ahead, scientists' ability to predict potential environmental consequences apparently has not, according to the new Science paper, a review of scientific literature by Dr. LaReesa Wolfenbarger and Dr. Paul Phifer. The study of the highest profile of environmental risks, the potential threat of genetically modified corn to monarch butterflies, is a case in point.
Questions about corn and monarchs first arose in the spring of 1999 when Cornell researchers showed that monarch caterpillars died in the laboratory after eating pollen from genetically engineered corn. The corn, given a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, then produced a toxin that killed the European corn borer pest.
Corn and monarch butterflies are two of the best studied organisms on the planet. How difficult could it be to determine whether monarchs were indeed at risk in the wild?
But last month, after a year and a half of research by more than 20 researchers from universities and industry, scientists gathered outside Chicago were still unable to say with any precision what the magnitude of risk was from the biotech corn to wild monarch populations.
One reason so little is known about the magnitude of ecological risks in general is that regulators deemed some effects, including those to species like the monarch - which are neither beneficial to agriculture nor legally protected as endangered species - of little concern.
"We knew things like monarchs and other butterflies would be susceptible," Dr. Arnold Foudin, an assistant director of scientific services at the Department of Agriculture, said in a phone interview after the Cornell study appeared. "That's part of the general background noise."
But the major problem for researchers is the inherent difficulty, expense and time involved in understanding ecological interactions.
Biologists first set out to see whether monarch caterpillars would even encounter Bt corn pollen in the wild. By fall, biologists announced that most toxic pollen is shed within a cornfield, rather than outside it. If monarchs were unlikely to live in cornfields, as industry spokesmen suggested, the effects of the new crop might be quite limited. But this summer researchers discovered that large numbers of monarch caterpillars live on milkweed in cornfields.
"We're finding them between the rows of corn," said Dr. Karen S. Oberhauser, ecologist at University of Minnesota.
To complicate matters further, it appears that risks to monarchs will vary both by region and by variety of corn grown.
More important, other scientists report finding this summer that the survival of monarch caterpillars in Bt and normal corn fields is indistinguishable. The potential complication is that the vast majority of caterpillars are killed by predators.
"Only 2 to 5 percent of them ever make it," said Dr. Rick Hellmich, research entomologist with the Department of Agriculture working at Iowa State University.
So while some are again ready to conclude that Bt corn poses no undue risk to the monarch, others say with such a minuscule survival rate, even important differences between the survival rates in the two fields would be tiny, probably requiring much larger-scale studies to detect. "Given the ups and down on this one, I'd hate to jump to conclusions now," said Dr. David Andow, entomologist at the University of Minnesota.
The difficulty in coming to conclusions about corn and monarchs raises the question of how much scientists can be expected to learn about what researchers say are the other, much more complex ecological threats from biotech organisms. In addition, authors of the new Science paper say there are some risks that scientists may never be able to fully understand. For example, in the past scientists have recorded delays of 30 to 50 years between the arrival of a plant and its widespread infestation as a weed, making reliable predictions of the long-term likelihood of threats like superweeds extremely difficult.
Dr. John Losey, a co-author of the original monarch study, said he and a group of other researchers originally estimated it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to answer the monarch question.
If this is the cost of understanding just one risk from one biotech organism to one species, where will the big research dollars come from to answer the variety of questions being raised by the development of many new organisms? Dr. Michael Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association representing biotechnology companies, said he seconded the new Science study's call for further research of ecological risk, but said the public should not look to the private sector to foot the bill.
The public source for such money is the Department of Agriculture's Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants program, which typically finances just over $1 million in research a year - the mandated 1 percent of total dollars spent on biotechnology research by the department. These grants cover risk research on everything from biotech fish, insects and plants to viruses.
Whether the science being called for will ever be in hand remains to be seen. But researchers on both sides of the debate note that any decision about what to do next will be determined not only by the magnitude of the risks and benefits, determined by scientists, but by the value placed on them by those making the decisions.
"Much of the objection to biotechnology involves values," said Dr. Peter Kareiva, senior ecologist for cumulative risk assessment at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Answers, he said, will not come just from "handing off a science answer like a stone tablet from the mountaintop."
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Last Updated on 12/20/00