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 holidays.

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 qualities.

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 pointers.

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 to distraction.

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:

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