Three Years Later: Lessons Learned From the Monarch Butterfly Controversy

Three Years Later: Lessons Learned From the Monarch Butterfly Controversy

Three years ago this month, a short research article published in the scientific journal Nature saying that monarch butterflies were threatened by genetically modified (GM) corn caused major controversy and placed the insect virtually overnight squarely in the middle of a major public policy battle over the future of agricultural biotechnology. The unique, collaborative and inclusive process then used to help answer scientific questions raised by the monarch controversy can be a useful way to resolve politically-charged scientific debates, according to a new retrospective of the monarch butterfly/GM corn controversy released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

To get credible answers to the questions raised by the Nature paper, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped convene scientists from government, industry, academia and environmental groups to work together to develop research to assess the risks of GM corn to monarchs. This process could be a useful way to solve the science questions swirling around the most recent biotech controversy: whether Mexican corn has been "contaminated" by genetically modified varieties from the United States and, if so, what it means, according to the Initiative. The issue brief, a retrospective chronology of events as seen through the perspectives of some of the key participants, also highlights issues about the role of the media in reporting science findings and the adequacy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's initial environmental assessment of GM corn.

The collaborative process used in the monarch case culminated in studies published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found that the acute risks to monarchs from GM corn were small because monarchs are exposed only to low levels of the corn's potentially toxic pollen in real-world conditions. While some long-term exposure issues require additional study, virtually all of the groups interested in the issue found the process to be credible and useful in answering many of the key science questions.

"While this particular scientific controversy may be largely over, the greater debate over genetically modified crops is not," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "The process developed to address the monarch controversy can teach us a great deal about better ways to resolve scientific controversies on topics that are highly politically and emotionally charged. The current controversy over whether native corn in Mexico has been 'contaminated' by GM corn, for example, calls for a similar collaborative and inclusive approach to answering those scientific questions." A recent study in Nature finding such contamination has been highly controversial, and was eventually retracted by the journal, leaving many questions unanswered; however, the Mexican secretary of the environment ministry's national commission on biodiversity was reported to have confirmed last month that there was "no doubt" about the corn's "contamination."

Go to the issue brief Genetically Engineered Corn and the Monarch Butterfly Controversy.