Profits Vs. The Planet: ‘Butterflies Are Free’

Many poems have been written about being as “free as a butterfly,” fluttering from one flower to another with reckless abandon. Yet recent studies by scientists demonstrate that human development of genetically engineered plants has restricted the freedom of monarch butterflies.

It was recently reported in the journal Nature that the pollen from genetically engineered corn containing a toxin gene called Bt killed 44 percent of the monarch butterfly caterpillars who fed on milkweed leaves dusted with it. Caterpillars fed with conventional pollen all survived.

Since nearly 25 percent of the U.S. corn crop now contains this gene and the Corn Belt states of the Midwest are where half of the monarch butterflies are produced each year, there is a distinct possibility that the number of monarchs will drastically decline.

Due to the unexpected results of the monarch butterfly study, scientists are now beginning to question the potential environmental effects of scores of other genetically engineered crops being introduced into the agricultural fields.

The question that is raised is: Why weren’t such studies done before introducing genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton, and other crops over millions of acres of farm land? Are these dying caterpillars like dying canaries in a mine warning us of danger?

“Will benefits outweigh the costs?”

Since these studies have not been done, the British Medical Association (BMA) has recently issued a statement regarding genetically modified food. They begin their statement (“Agriculture, Food and Health”) with a quote that gives an overview on evolution and genetic engineering:

“‘Evolution is all about assembling the improbable by tiny steps; and not until the unlikely has been reached do we notice just what it can do. Genetically engineered organisms will, like any other creature, evolve to deal with their new condition.

“‘It is fairly certain that some of them will cause problems. Low risk is not no risk. The question is one which is universal in economics-will the benefits outweigh the costs?’ (Steve Jones, 1993.)”

They continue, “Genetic modification (GM) involves the insertion of genes from one organism into another to produce altered genetic material (DNA). The technology is being used to alter certain properties of food crops-for example, to make plants herbicide resistant, or delay rotting in tomatoes. As its use has become more widespread and sophisticated, there is increased public concern over the safety of genetically modified plants, within the food chain and within human foodstuffs.” The BMA then goes on to propose several steps to insure safety:

“The precautionary principle [that a new food additive is presumed unsafe until established safe through standard scientific procedures] should be applied in developing genetically modified crops or foodstuffs, as we cannot at present know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or to human health involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food products.

“Adverse effects are likely to be irreversible; once GMOs are released into the environment they cannot be subject to control. It is therefore essential that release does not take place until the level of scientific certainty is sufficient to make the risk acceptable.”

The BMA also recommends that a moratorium be placed on the commercial planting of GM crops in the UK until there is general scientific agreement about the potential long-term environmental effects. GM foodstuffs, they say, should be segregated at source and adequately labeled to enable identification and traceability of GM products.

All of the above procedures do not seem to be that complicated. Unfortunately, in the United States, although the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act incorporates the precautionary principle, the FDA does not apply this principle to genetically engineered foods. (It ruled in 1992 that genetically engineered foods are not new food additives.)

This is not hard to understand since Monsanto and Dupont are the main corporate producers of these foods. Unfettered by the precautionary principle, these gigantic chemical corporations are now conquering farming through genetic engineering.

Their products have led to larger yields of food products in the short term. Just as in the past, their chemicals have led to short-term increase in farm productivity. With this increase in productivity, these corporate giants are now attempting to establish a monopoly over all agricultural production throughout the world.

In the course of this endeavor they have patented their products and the seeds, so that farmers have to buy seeds from them every year. They have sued farmers who have kept seeds for future harvest and they are producing a “terminator gene” so that their products will not produce fertile seeds.

In this manner, all production of food will eventually be under their control.

From past experience with these companies, profits have always come before consumer and environmental safety. They are not concerned about any long-term effects that their products may have on humanity or the rest of the world. In fact, the insurance companies, being aware of these facts, have refused insurance coverage for any long-term effects of genetically engineered products.

Cuban science versus Monsanto

In Issue #1, March 1999, of the Monsanto Monitor, there is an interview with a Cuban geneticist. In this interview, Rebecka Milestad, of the Research School in Ecological Land Use at the Department of Rural Development Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, wrote:

“‘If Monsanto came to Cuba, we would never sell ourselves to them. Cuba is more important than money,’ claimed Eduardo, a geneticist at the agricultural university in Havana Province, where I visited him and his colleagues in January this year.

“Their laboratory facilities are run down and they complain that other research institutes in Cuba receive more resources for genetic engineering research. Yet he still would not work for a company like Monsanto.

“So I asked how Monsanto practice differs from that what he and his fellow researchers do. He replied, ‘they wouldn’t dream of trying to develop herbicide-resistant crops, for example, that are only designed for the big companies to make money.’

“‘In Cuba,’ he continued, ‘we only use biotechnology and genetic engineering for the good of our people and our country. And there is no limit to what we can achieve with this technology.'”

Cuba has been in the forefront of developing organic farming along with their biotechnology. Due to the blockade, they have been forced to move away from chemical agriculture.

In fact, the Cuban experiment in agriculture should be carefully observed. In my opinion, the results that they have already achieved demonstrate that their approach shows the way to combine science and technology for the benefit of the environment and humanity.

“Butterflies are free, and so are we…” are the words to a song by Leonard Gershe in his play “Butterflies are Free.” We and the butterflies can only be free if we are safe in our own habitat.

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