Genetically modified maize

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Genetically modified maize (corn) has been engineered and is grown commercially in the United States. Traits that have been engineered into corn are resistance to herbicides and incorporation of a gene that codes for the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, protecting plants from insect pests. Hybrids with both herbicide and pest resistance have also been produced.

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Herbicide resistant corn

Corn varieties resistant to imidazolinone herbicides and Roundup have been produced.

Herbicide resistant GM corn is grown in the United States. Amidst much controversy, a variation of herbicide resistant GM corn was approved for import into the European Union in 2004. Such imports remain highly controversial (The Independent, 2005).

Bt corn

Missing image
Corn_borer.jpg
The European corn borer Ostrinia nubilalis, destroys corn crops by burrowing into the stem, causing the plant to fall over.

Bt corn is a variant of maize, genetically altered to express the bacterial Bt toxin, which is poisonous to insect pests. In the case of corn, the pest is the European Corn Borer.

Expressing the toxin was achieved by inserting a gene from the soil-dwelling microorganism Bacillus thuringiensis into the corn genome. This gene codes for a toxin that will crystallize in the digestive tract of insect larvae, leading to its starvation.

In 2001, Bt176 varieties were voluntarily withdrawn from the list of approved varieties by the Environmental Protection Agency when it was found to have little or no Bt expression in the ears and was not found to be effective against second generation corn borers. (Current status of Bt Corn Hybrids, 2005)

Bt corn and monarch butterflies

In May 1999, a laboratory at Cornell University published the results from a laboratory trial that appeared to indicate that the pollen of genetically modified Bt corn presented a threat to monarch caterpillars. Critics claimed that the popular media was wrong to report that monarch butterflies were threatened because this experiment did not duplicate natural conditions under which monarch caterpillars may come in contact with corn pollen. (Cornell News, 1999)

In 2001 the scientific journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published six comprehensive studies that showed that Bt corn pollen does not pose a risk to monarch populations for the following reasons:

  • The density of Bt corn pollen that overlay milkweed leaves in the environment rarely comes close to the levels needed to harm monarch butterflies. Both laboratory and field studies confirmed this.
  • There is limited overlap between the period that Bt corn sheds pollen and when caterpillars are present.
  • Only a portion of the monarch caterpillar population feeds on milkweeds in and near cornfields.

(Sears, et al., 2001)

Cross pollination

By law, farmers in the United States who plant Bt corn must plant non-Bt corn nearby. These non-modified fields are to provide a location to harbor pests. The theory behind these refuges is to slow the adaptation of the pests to the Bt pesticide.

The non-Bt pesticide status of the refuges is being compromised by wind-born pollen drifting into the non-Bt corn fields. Corn harvested from the supposed Bt-free zones has shown traces of Bt toxin. The levels found in the non-Bt corn decreases with distance from the Bt-corn fields indicating that the pollen is wind-borne rather than another method of transfer. The concentrations in the refuge fields were found to be low-to-moderate.

Possible solutions to the cross-pollination problem are to plant a wider refuge field or plant varieties of corn that bloom at different times than the Bt fields do. (Chilcutt & Tabashnik, 2004)

The StarLink corn controversy

StarLink was a variety of Bt corn patented by Aventis Crop Sciences (a subdivision of Aventis, acquired by Bayer AG in 2002).

U.S. regulatory authorities permitted the commercial sale of StarLink seed, with the stipulation that crops produced must not be used for human consumption. This restriction was based on the possibility that a small number of people might develop an allergic reaction to a protein contained in the grain.

StarLink corn was subsequently found in food destined for consumption by humans, with an episode involving taco shells being particularly well publicized. This led to a public relations disaster for Aventis and the biotechnology industry as a whole. Sales of StarLink seed were discontinued.

The southern portion of the U.S. corn belt planted the greatest amount of StarLink corn. It is this portion of the U.S. where corn borer damage creates the greatest economic loss to farmers.

There have never been any adequately controlled studies to determine whether StarLink actually poses any greater risk of allergic reaction than ordinary varieties of corn.

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References

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