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A report on the controversy over the potential threat of genetically modified corn to the Monarch butterfly provides some useful pointers to ways in which such controversies could be better handled in future.

The world might have a different attitude to the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops if it had not been for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last September. For among the many stories that these attacks obliterated from the newspapers was a report on six scientific papers being published simultaneously in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on the safety of corn that has been genetically engineered to express a toxin that kills certain pests.

The toxin in question is produced naturally by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (and the corn is therefore known as Bt-corn). As everyone following the GM debate is well aware, a paper published in the journal Nature in May 1999 had provoked a storm of protest with its reported discovery of a high mortality rate among larvae of the much-loved Monarch butterfly when fed on leaves of its staple diet, milkweed, that had been contaminated with Bt-corn pollen.

Last year's PNAS papers presented the results of a range of studies carried out to determine whether these findings, and other work that supported them, meant that Bt-corn should be considered a major environmental hazard. Their conclusion, in brief, was that, although careful monitoring was still required, any risks were relatively minor.

Almost exactly three years after the publication of the Nature paper, the heat of the scientific controversy has largely evaporated. But the image of dead Monarch butterflies lingers in the public consciousness as the unacceptable face of GM technology. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology has now produced a report, Genetically Engineered Corn and the Monarch Butterfly Controversy that seeks to put the debate in perspective, and points to some important lessons in how such issues play out in public.

What went right?

As the Pew report shows, there is much about the Monarch butterfly story that makes it a good illustration of how such issues should be handled. After all, the original experiments, conducted by researchers at Cornell University, had pointed to an issue of potential concern that had not been given significant weight in the initial decision to allow Bt-corn to be licensed.

Arguments that the experiments, in which Bt-corn pollen had been dusted on to the leaves of the milkweed plant in the laboratory, were not sufficiently close to a real-world situation were undermined by other tests carried out at Iowa State University. These showed that actual milkweed leaves taken from fields in which Bt-corn had been planted had a similar effect. As a result of such concerns, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) introduced modifications into its regulatory process.

Furthermore, the intense public scrutiny which the Nature paper stimulated resulted, eventually, in a robust social consensus between all sides of the debate that had previously been lacking. Last October, a month after the publication of the PNAS papers, the EPA reauthorised the registrations of five Bt-corn products on the market for an additional five years. The decision to go ahead was taken after a vigorous debate in which all stakeholders — from industry representatives to environmentalist groups — had been given a chance to examine the Cornell research and its implications in detail, to assess the results of follow-up studies, and to talk through their differences.

What went wrong?

The question, of course, is whether this social consensus could have been reached quicker, more effectively, and with less use of scare tactics by proponents and critics of GM crops alike. The Pew report on the affair suggests that this should have been possible. But it also identifies some of the factors still in play that make this difficult.

Firstly, the scientists at Cornell University who conducted the original research seem to have been unprepared for the firestorm that it unleashed, even though to many news editors, the story of a lurking threat to a photogenic national icon was a natural choice for front-page coverage. One researcher commented that "I don't think I'd ever seen that level of interest in any paper, let alone one that I had published".

The moral here is that a greater awareness by researchers not only of the likely implications of their research, but also of the way the media operates in handling such stories, would reap substantial benefits. In the case of the Nature paper, for example, it might have led to greater care to ensure that the scientific conclusions were presented in a proper social and environmental context, even in the original publication of the results.

The dangers of spin

Secondly, part of the reason for the intensity of the media frenzy was a strongly-worded press release produced by Cornell University announcing the results. Other equally charged press releases were sent out by public interest groups, keen — like the university press officers — to generate maximum coverage for the issue in the public arena. Here the challenge is the need to ensure that legitimate efforts to catch a news editor's eye do not succeed at the cost of distorting perceptions of the significance of what is being reported.

The third moral also relates to attempts to mould media perception, this time by industry. In November 1999, a roundtable was organised by the industry-financed Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee (ABSTC) at which a number of scientists who had conducted follow-up studies were invited to give their opinions on the Cornell experiments. The general consensus at the meeting was that, despite the experiments, Bt-corn was still relatively safe to use. But public confidence in this consensus was immediately undermined when it became clear that a press release announcing such a 'conclusion' had been prepared and distributed to journalists prior to the meeting by an industry lobby group.

The way forward

It would be naïve to pretend that there are simple strategies and solutions in such situations. But the Monarch butterfly controversy has certainly pinpointed areas that need addressing. Scientists, for example, need to be better equipped to anticipate the full impact of media response to their research, particularly when it involves a sensitive subject such as GM crops.

This need is part of a bigger challenge, namely to develop ways of engaging the public in informed debates on controversial topics without exaggerated perceptions. Leaving the tasks to panels of experts, to established government regulatory mechanisms, or to the independence of the mass media is no longer sufficient. More imagination is needed here to move beyond citizens' juries and other geographically-limited experiments in devising strategies that will work for developed and developing countries alike.

For all the disruption that it has caused, the Monarch controversy has been useful in helping to identify more clearly some questions about the potential environmental impact of genetically modified crops in general. And the political resolution of the controversy has, as the Pew report indicates, provided a valuable illustration of how, in the right circumstances, knowledge-based public debate can lead to a reasoned conclusion. The challenge is how to generalise this experience into a strategy not merely for dealing with crisis events, but all aspects of technological innovation.

See: Genetically Engineered Corn and the Monarch Butterfly Controversy

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