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Researchers Respond
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Butterflies and Bt corn. Allowing Science to Guide Decisions.
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Researchers Respond

Scientists responded quickly to the alleged threat to monarchs. In the summer of 1999, in the midst of the media tempest, public and private researchers began studies to explore whether Bt corn pollen truly affects monarchs in their natural habitat.

The first of these results were presented at a Monarch Butterfly Research Workshop in Chicago in November 1999, attended by researchers and concerned groups including environmental organizations, industry and regulators. Although the data were preliminary and, in many cases, not yet fully analyzed, the results presented provided evidence that the monarch was not likely to be harmed by pollen from Bt corn.

Repeatedly, researchers urged that any decisions made about Bt corn be based on studies that had undergone rigorous peer review to ensure that the data and the conclusions were of the highest scientific validity, rather than formulating regulations as a reaction to media coverage.

Nine meetings, open to the public, were held between 1999 and 2001, where Bt corn/monarch data were discussed. One of these meetings was a workshop coordinated by the Agricultural Research Service held in Kansas City, Mo., in February 2000. About 40 scientists from universities, government, industry and the environmental community participated. They established research priorities needed to firmly answer whether Bt corn pollen presented a significant risk to monarchs.

Projects were selected and funded through a grant process, overseen by a steering committee with diverse interests, including those with concerns about the application of biotechnology to agriculture. More than $200,000 in grant funding was provided by the Agricultural Research Service and the industry group the Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee. Environment Canada, with the approval of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, provided funding for similar research in Ontario.

The studies focused on exploring what effect, if any, Bt corn pollen had on monarchs in fields under typical growing conditions.

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Entomologist Rich Hellmich (right) and technician Randy Ritland collect milkweed leaves near pollinating corn.

Controversy and media attention aside, the Bt corn and monarch butterfly case was unique because an attitude prevailed, even among groups with differing agendas, that decisions about transgenic plants should be based on the weight of scientific evidence.


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