Meanwhile, the bacterial toxin, a protein called CryIA(b), is highly specific to certain insect pests, such as the European corn borer and the spruce budworm. When it was discovered, it was hailed as an ecologically friendly, natural pesticide free of the dangers posed by potent, but indiscriminate, organophosphate insecticides. In the form of killed bacteria, it was sprayed on millions of acres. Simply incorporating the gene, known as Bt, into a plant gives it resistance to pests, without requiring periodic spraying by the farmer.
Monsanto's insistence that its elegant double whammy is far more ecologically benign than the products it replaces has done little to put fears about genetically modified crops to rest. Nor did the EPA's encouraging 1996 statement, which came after a decade of testing, quell critics. The report stated that "there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the United States population, including infants and children, to the CryIA(b) protein and the genetic material necessary for its production. This includes all anticipated dietary exposures and all other exposures for which there is reliable information."
Opponents now refer to the new crops as "frankenfood." Last August a report from British researcher Arpad Puztai indicated that rats fed on genetically modified potatoes for 110 days, the equivalent to 10 years in human terms, showed signs of stunted growth and increased vulnerability to disease. An immediate outcry ensued. Criticism that rats are not notably fond of potatoes and that a human, fed only the tubers for a decade, would not likely be in such great shape either, had little effect.
The most recent fly in Monsanto's ointment is the beautiful Monarch butterfly. In a brief letter published in the May 20 issue of Nature, Cornell University entomologists led by John E. Losey reported that Monarch larvae fed milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt-modified corn died in a laboratory experiment. Almost half of the tested lavae, which ate less than control butterflies fed their normal milkweed diet, died. The Monarchs migrate from Mexico to northern North American, where they spend the summer breeding; the larvae eat a diet exclusively of milkweed.
It was quickly pointed out that large concentrations of pollen on milkweed leaves were unlikely more than a few feet from flowering corn--and that pollen is readily blown off by the wind and washed away by rain. It was also noted that while the butterflies breed all season, corn pollinates once. Others commented that the larvae wouldn't be very healthy either if they were in a corn field sprayed with conventional agricultural chemicals.
Even so, in Europe, where resistance to genetically modified crops is even more determined than in the U.S., the report drew immediate action. The European Union's executive commission decided to halt the approvals procedure for gentically altered crops. France, which, like Britain, has had a moratorium on planting genetically modified rapeseed to produce cooking oil since 1998, appointed a commission to determine if a similar moratorium on the corn was warranted. In Asia, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced in late June that it was suspending approval of Bt crops for agricutural purposes, pending the establishment of criteria by a special committee on genetically modified organisms.
So far U.S. growers and food processors have been able to fend off efforts to segregate and label genetically altered foods. Their view is also supported by the Codex Alimentarius, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization committee seeking uniform international standards for food. But the butterfly findings seem to have also speeded a move by European food processors, who are bowing to perceived consumer pressure by shying away from genetically modified ingredients.
In Britain, for example, a recent study showed that 30 of the leading food processors had either stopped, or were going to stop, using genetically modified ingredients. The latest among them is Northern Foods, one of the largest producers of fresh food products in the U.K. Meanwhile, Paris-based Groupe Danone, the third biggest food processor in Europe, announced that it wouldn't use genetically modified ingredients. And both Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company, and Switzerland's Nestle stated that they would limit or ban the use of genetically modified ingredients in selected countries.