RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen
Of Bt and Butterflies
Tired of the flash and boom, we're seeking another way to celebrate July
4. We still love the pyrotechnics, but nobody's fooled any more when stories
of violence in local schools appear on the same page with pictures of refugees
in faraway places. It's time to reconsider how we celebrate our national
As I was mulling this over, a flurry of news came out on the subject of
the monarch butterfly, in Nature, Wall Street Journal and
Time, and your local newspaper. The monarch is in unexpected danger,
because of a new genetically altered corn plant.
Question: Why would anybody genetically alter corn?
First of all, remember that farmers come in all sizes. Ask your farmer's
market producer if he or she plants genetically altered plants. I bet they
don't. Farmers that grow food to sell directly to you are leery of genetically
altered plants because nobody really knows what the effects of the alterations
will be in the long run. In fact, farmers raising food organically are worried
about genetically altered plants because there is no guarantee the plants
won't mix with tried-and-true varieties and make something else.
On the other hand, the highly indebted corporate farmer who sells corn to
the feed lots and chicken or hog factories are the ones planting Bt crops.
Corporate farmers want maximum yields from their fields; they buy seed that
they think will maximize yields. Incidentally, the crops they grow are available
in all your fast foods and groceries.
In the effort to maximize yields, the seed scientists look for ways to make
the plants resistant to pests, which eat crops. The newest way is called
by a variety of names, including genetic engineering, genetic modification,
genetic alteration or gene splicing. When one term gets known and understood,
they change it. The resulting plant or animal is often called a "genetically
modified organism" or "GMO."
It may seem that all this is just an advanced level of the kind of selection
breeders have been doing for years, saving seed from the best plants to
put in the ground next year. Or purposely breeding plants and animals with
certain characteristics so they would have offspring that displayed those
That kind of selective breeding has given us corn plants that withstand
drought, or that have more ears on a stalk. It has also given us Angus cattle
that yield more beef and holstein cattle that give more milk. And, selective
breeding is what makes cocker spaniel dogs look different than poodles or
This new technology isn't selective breeding. The new technology involves
putting DNA from one species into another. Petunia genes are spliced into
soybeans, or fish genes are spliced into tomatoes. The result is a kind
of soybean -- or tomato -- that could never be bred naturally.
The larva-killing corn resulted when scientists spliced bacteria DNA into
a corn kernel. The new plant is sometimes nicknamed "Bt," after
the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is poisonous to many insects that
feast on crops.
Eating Bt corn kills pests. And, Bt corn produces pollen which carries the
Bt DNA. Like all pollens, this one blows all over the place. Some of it
lands on other corn, fertilizing it, and some of it might lodge in your
very own sinuses, making you sneeze if you are allergic.
As my sister says, someone needs to invent corn condoms.
Inevitably, some pollen lands on milkweed, the only food eaten by monarchs
in their caterpillar stage. And this Bt pollen, scientists proved in a Cornell
University laboratory and in Iowa State University field tests, killed 44%
of the monarch caterpillars exposed to it.
Monarchs are the first butterflies the scientists have tested, because the
orange and black beauties have a fan club. I visited a Kansas City school
district that had built a curriculum around the monarch. The children --
and kids from dozens of other "Monarchwatch" schools on the hemisphere
-- bring eggs into the classrooms to watch them hatch, tag the butterflies,
released them gently into the sky with the hope that they'd make it to hibernation
grounds in Mexico.
Big kids read monarch fact sheets to kindergartners. Big kids are cool,
so the little ones pay attention. At recess, I saw play stop when a butterfly
passed overhead. The school neighborhood is in transition from rural pastures
to suburban lawns, and children teach their parents not to mow away all
the milkweed habitat. In just this little way, the kids are learning how
very wonderful and mysterious our world is and how they can be responsible
for some of it.
I asked the kids why they studied monarchs. After all, nobody has ever proven
that monarchs are good for anything. The kids answered that monarchs are
part of nature, something that belongs here, beautiful, and interesting.
Without monarch butterflies, the kids said, the world would be sadder.
The study of monarchs is surprising. It opens up more questions than answers.
Each generation of the butterflies picks up one leg of a migration from
Mexico to Canada and back. It takes three generations to make a year's round,
and nobody knows how the information on navigation is passed from generation
to generation. Read one article about monarchs, or look up the monarchwatch
web page on the internet and you'll be hooked.
But monarchs are only one of the dozens of species of butterflies that live
in our neighborhoods. What about fritillary? Swallowtail? painted lady?
Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows.
As I write this, I'm munching on a bowl of cherries from my neighbor's tree.
They're delicious -- much better than the crow I have to eat with them,
because I declared last year that we could never grow cherries here. Never
have and never will. I'd never plant cherry trees again, I said.
She was too polite to remind me of my brash declaration. "It's the
bees," she said. Two years ago, three of us women got bee hives. Caring
for our bees has given us more than we ever dreamed. We work in the hives
together, collect swarms together, build and paint hives together, share
books and information, compare notes, develop recipes, and worry each other
We've also noticed the contribution the bees make to our environment. Our
hayfields have more clover; our fruit trees have more fruit. The cherries
are the most recent surprise. So what will happen when the bees bring Bt
pollen back to the hives to feed their young? The answer, of course, is
that nobody knows.
Maybe it's too late, this year, to make plans to celebrate peace on Independence
Day. But take a minute to enjoy the butterflies, the bees, the cherries.
Maybe it's our last chance.
Maybe we can celebrate our own independence wherever we find it. Celebrate
our independent food system by eating foods grown locally and not brought
by trucks from faraway places. Celebrate our independent transportation
systems by walking or biking to the park. Celebrate our independent entertainment
systems by playing cards with the neighbors. But maybe it's too late, because
we've already promised flash and boom.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton,
Mo. Email: email@example.com
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