Over the last century technology has changed the world we live in drastically, for better or worse. However, a relatively new area of science, called biotechnology, threatens to alter it in ways we may not understand until it’s too late to fix.
At first glance, the arguments for biotechnology seem irrefutable. By manipulating the genetic structure of a plant or animal, the agriculture industry can produce more food more efficiently and eventually end world hunger. They can create “superfoods” with longer shelf lives and immunity to pests. But things are not always as they seem.
Opponents of genetic engineering wonder if this manipulation could lead to ending nature as we know it. Although that seems a little dramatic, consider the case of the poisoned butterfly.
According to Food, Inc.(pp.122-123) by Peter Pringle, in the spring of 1999 a young Cornell entomologist, John Losey, reported in the science journal Nature that the beloved monarch butterfly’s future appeared to be in danger.
At that time, a quarter of the U.S. corn crops had been planted with seeds that contained Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Originally used as a pesticide spray, scientists found it was more effective to inject the Bt bacteria into the cells of crops like corn, cotton, and potatoes. So instead of it protecting from the outside, it grew from the inside out.
Losey and his Cornell researchers were concerned that injecting the bacteria into corn would mean it would be in the pollen the crops released. Losey speculated that monarch butterflies could be harmed when they ate their normal diet of milkweed leaves covered in Bt corn pollen.
In a barebones experiment, Losey fed monarch larvae with Bt pollinated milkweed leaves and observed. Within four days nearly half the larvae were dead and the others were severely underweight compared to the control group.
Until then, the biotech industry had touted the Bt pesticide as the most green-friendly product available, since it was a naturally occurring bacteria. Losey knew that news of the dead monarch butterflies would rock the industry. Many companies had spent millions of dollars developing ways to use Bt.
However, the implications would spell global trouble for all kinds of moths and butterflies feeding near millions of acres of Bt cornfields. There was no way to know yet how this could threaten the balance of the ecosystem.
The opposite result happened in the case of the diamond back moth, but no less alarming. For many years, scientists have known it’s possible for insects to develop a resistance to artificial insecticides. However, the diamond back moth became fully tolerant to Bt crops after just two-dozen generations, or eight crop seasons, according to Your Right To Know by Andrew Kimbrell.