A Secret History of the Monarch: How the Biotech Industry Conspired to Knock Off One of the World’s Rarest Butterflies
On May 20 1999, Nature magazine sounded what might have been the death knell of the biotech food industry. A short paper in the respected British science magazine by John Losey, an assistant professor of entomology at Cornell University, reported the ominous results of his laboratory study on the effects of pollen from genetically modified corn on the Monarch butterfly. Losey found that that Monarch caterpillars fed on milkweed leaves dusted with genetically modified corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly and suffered a higher mortality rate than those fed on leaves with normal pollen, or with no pollen at all. Nearly half of the GM pollen-fed caterpillars in the study died.
The corn in question is “Bt” corn, modified by genetic engineers in corporate labs to produce Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium and natural pesticide that organic farmers have for years been spraying on crops, if and when threatened by insects. In contrast to the intermittent doses of the organic farmers, however, the GM variety exudes Bt all the time, at a level of toxicity 10 to 20 times that deployed by the organic sprayers and is distributed via wind-blown pollen. The target of this laboratory-bred plant is the dreaded European corn borer, pending the inevitable evolution of a Bt resistant borer.
By early 1999, Bt corn appeared to be fulfilling the wildest hopes of its developers. First approved for sale by Clinton’s EPA in 1996 (without any requirement that it be tested for effects on “non-target” species, such as butterflies) the genetically altered seeds were being sown on 20 million acres in 1998. The companies hoped for a doubling in sales by the following year.
At the time, Cornell was a dangerous place for the untenured Losey to pursue his investigations, given that the university’s agriculture school has long enjoyed carnal relations with agri-chemical corporations, such as Monsanto and Novartis. Indeed, one member of the faculty, apprised of its dangerous implications, sent a draft of Losey’s paper to Monsanto. A tremulous executive rushed to Ithaca and issued a stern warning against publication of the research, exclaiming that the publicity would “ruin” the GM industry. Losey stood his ground.
Once the May 20 issue of Nature hit the stands, events swiftly justified the corporation’s forebodings. Americans, who love their Monarch, reacted with outrage. Monsanto stock began a slide from which it has never recovered; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich introduced a bill in Congress to compel labeling for all GM foods on sale; major environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, hitherto hailed by Monsanto executives for an “understanding” attitude to GM, joined calls for restrictions on Bt corn; the European Commission cited the report as justification for a moratorium on approvals for sales of new GM products.
The bloodied biotech industry rallied and fought back. In June 1999, the leading biotech companies, including Monsanto, Novartis Seeds Inc, AgrEvo USA and others, carpentered together an entity called the “Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Working Group”, which allotted $100,000, to a number of scientists across the US and Canada, urging them to hasten to their labs and computers and probe the relationship between Monarch and corn pollen. By fall, the results, or at least something that could be profitably passed on to the public, were in. On November 2, 1999, massed ranks of industry executives assembled for a symposium in Chicago under the joint banner of the Stewardship Working Group and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (playing its traditional role as a handmaiden of agribusiness.) In attendance were Burson Marsteller and other sleek professionals of the PR industry.
Eight of the researchers at the symposium had been funded by the industry. For appearances sake, however, the organizers felt it necessary to invite other less predictable scientists, such as Dr. Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, America’s leading expert on the Monarch. Given that they could not therefore be assured of one hundred percent quiescence from the assembled egg-heads, the corporate overseers adopted a simple expedient. Even before the proceedings commenced, they issued a press release, buttressed by a conference call with selected scientists and reporters, headlined: “Scientific symposium to show no harm to Monarch butterfly”. Journalists from most major metropolitan papers, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, St Louis Post Dispatch and others did their duty, assuring their readers that the Monarch is safe. The smooth operation was disrupted only by Carol Yoon of the New York Times, who had the ill grace to reveal the message of the press release to the meeting and asked if all researchers present agreed. Several voiced their dissent.
Reports from those scientists presenting an optimistic view of the Monarch’s prospects in a biotech world did not inspire confidence among all concerned. A number had eschewed the messy business of actually scrutinizing butterflies in the field, opting instead for the more controllable environment of the laboratory and computer simulation. Thus, as Lincoln Brower noted in a tart report on the proceedings: “Several papers presented at the symposium indicated a lack of understanding of basic Monarch biology and ecology (even though most of this information has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including methods for working with caterpillars in the field, life table studies, and fecundity data).” In Brower’s scornful view, scientific research in this area is badly compromised by industry money
The system worked. Two months after the Chicago gathering, Gene Grabowski, senior flack with the potent Grocery Manufacturers of America, could claim that the threat of GM foods becoming as hot an issue here as they are in Europe has been beaten back “The fire caught on the edges”, he crowed, “but it is under control.” True, the EPA belatedly issued a requirement that Bt cornfields be abutted by “refuges” of non-GM corn to screen Monarchs from the deadly pollen, but such tactical victories did not outweigh the overall triumph of the biotech industry on the issue.
Meanwhile the poor Monarch, poised to begin its annual spring migration from central Mexico to the US, may find that come next fall there will be little left of the Oyamel fir forest to which these butterflies return for the winter. The forested mountain area in Michoacan to which all Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate is tiny, totaling less than 62 square miles. Alas, the vital forests are rapidly diminishing under the onslaught of local loggers.
The Mexican government, while decreeing that the core Monarch areas be protected, has unwisely followed US Forest Service practice by permitting a “buffer zone”, where limited logging is allowed around the central and supposedly inviolate zones. The buffer zones are being clearcut and the central zones are rapidly thinning.
Tens of thousands of tourists flock to Mexico to witness the incomparable spectacle of Monarchs en masse, an economic boon esteemed by the locals. In hotel gift shops visitors can buy Monarch memorabilia, as well as toy lumber trucks laden with simulated Oyamel logs.
Once the forests are gone, the Monarchs will have no canopy to protect them from winter damp and frosts, and they will disappear forever from field and forest, eliminated by chainsaws and bioengineering.
This article, a version of which appeared in CounterPunch in 2000, is excerpted from An Orgy of Thieves: Scenes From the Counter-Revolution by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair, to be published in the spring of 2016 by CounterPunch Books.