• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

SPRING FUNDRAISER

Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

May 27, 2020
Ipek S. Burnett
The Irony of American Freedom 
Paul Street
Life in Hell: Online Teaching
Vijay Prashad
Why Iran’s Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Are Sending Shudders Through Washington
Lawrence Davidson
National Values: Reality or Propaganda?
Ramzy Baroud
Why Does Israel Celebrate Its Terrorists: Ben Uliel and the Murder of the Dawabsheh Family
Sam Pizzigati
The Inefficient and Incredibly Lucrative Coronavirus Vaccine Race
Mark Ashwill
Vietnam Criticized for Its First-Round Victory Over COVID-19
David Rovics
A Note from the Ministry of Staple Guns
Binoy Kampmark
One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor
Nino Pagliccia
Canada’s Seat at the UN Security Council May be Coveted But is Far From a Sure Bet
Erik Molvar
Should Federal Public Lands be Prioritized for Renewable Energy Development?
R. G. Davis
Fascism: Is it Too Extreme a Label?
Gene Glickman
A Comradely Letter: What’s a Progressive to Do?
Jonathan Power
The Attacks on China Must Stop
John Kendall Hawkins
The Asian Pivot
May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution
Michael Uhl
A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus
Barrie Gilbert
The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.
Dean Baker
The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open
Thom Hartmann
The Next Death Wave from Coronavirus Will Be the Poor, Rural and White
Phil Knight
Killer Impact
Paul Cantor
Memorial Day 2020 and the Coronavirus
Laura Flanders
A Memorial Day For Lies?
Gary Macfarlane – Mike Garrity
Grizzlies, Lynx, Bull Trout and Elk on the Chopping Block for Trump’s Idaho Clearcuts
Cesar Chelala
Challenges of the Evolving Coronavirus Pandemic
Luciana Tellez-Chavez
This Year’s Forest Fire Season Could Be Even Deadlier
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Beijing Acts on Hong Kong
George Wuerthner
Saving the Lionhead Wilderness
Elliot Sperber
Holy Beaver
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail