The butterfly wake-up call that keeps on calling

April 2014

Image of a monarch butterfly on clover
Monarch butterfly. CC photo by Robert Huffstuttuer on Flickr
America's first ominous wake-up call to the presence of GM in its food chain came in 1999 in the form of a butterfly.
The bad news was that 'Bt' insecticide-laden pollen from GM maize dusted onto milkweed killed Monarch caterpillars.
Monarchs are gloriously-hued butterflies which migrate huge distances all over America where they have become iconic. To achieve this, they must pause to breed so the next generation can continue the epic journey. The stationary caterpillar stage depends solely on milkweed for sustenance, and their milkweed grows in the same areas as GM crops, such as Bt maize.
At the time of this first warning shot, the biotech industry's damage-limitation machinery quickly persuaded regulators that the experimental finding was too divorced from any real-life situation to worry about.
Over a decade later, the real-life situation in Mexico where Monarchs over-winter, was that the numbers of the butterflies making it back down South were in decline [1].

The first suspicion to be voiced was that the huge amounts of Roundup used on Roundup Ready GM crops were decimating the milkweed and starving the Monarchs out. At the same time, the caterpillars may be subject to sublethal doses of Bt toxin which could become significant in a time of failing food supply.
Two years on, the numbers of Monarchs making it to Mexico have plunged to the lowest since records began in 1993. Their recorded peak was in 1995, the year before GM crops hit US fields.
Experts say this decline now marks a statistical long-term trend and can no longer be seen as a combination of yearly or seasonal events. The Monarch migration on which its own survival depends is at serious risk of disappearing.
Other environmental factors are threatening the butterflies. Logging in their wintering grounds has taken its toll, but controlling logging alone can't save the Monarch. Recent extremes of weather have also made survival difficult for the butterflies. However, a leading entomologist is clear that
“The main culprit is now GMO herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA (which) leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch's principal food plant, common milkweed”.

Grass-roots movements trying to make up for the loss by planting milkweed are grinding into motion, but compared to the sheer scale of GM Roundup Ready crops and the thousands of miles traversed by the adult Monarchs, these may be a drop in the ocean.
Those butterflies just keep coming back to torment the biotech industry even as they are fading out of existence.
Looking back at all the other smoke raised about GM crops, such as Pusztai's gut-damaging GM potatoes, Ermakova's stunted, sterile GM soya-fed rats, Séralini's cancerous GM maize-fed rats, and a host of other warnings argued out of existence by vested interests, how long before all those fire flare up again?
Make sure Europe's fire-wall stands firm: just say NO to GM food.
  • Monarch butterfly numbers drop to lowest level since records started, Guardian, 29.01.14
  • J. Mark Scriber, 2001, Bt or not Bt Is that the question?, PNAS, 23.10.01

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