Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Time to go long corn?...

Suppose we did get a serious environmental kickback from all the Bt corn we're planting. And suppose it showed up in honeybees?

The study in question is a small research project conducted at the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004. The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."

Of course, the concentration of the toxin was ten times higher in the experiments than in normal Bt corn pollen. In addition, the bee feed was administered over a relatively lengthy six-week period. [More]

Our corn industry and more than a few corporate careers are built on the efficacy and safety of using Bt expression to defend plant from insects
. Lord knows we've covered all the bases we could in checking this technology out. To begin with, bees don't feed on corn pollen. But still, the problem is real.

As an example of what honeybees face, Hayes says to make a fist and place it next to your body.

“That’s how large a Varroa mite is to a honeybee. And these mites suck a bee’s blood. Obviously, that debilitates and weakens their immune systems. The mites also vector viruses that affect honeybee health.”

Normally, honeybees forage within a 2.5-mile radius of their colony. They visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar to make honey to feed themselves and their young. That means they’re exposed to whatever is in the environment.

“Of course, honeybees are exposed to agricultural chemicals sprayed on crops or used systemically to control pests,” says Hayes. “Those pests are mostly insects, but so are honeybees. Even at sub-lethal levels, some of the chemicals can find their way through plant nectar and pollen to the bees.”

Researchers are also looking into any possibility that GMO crops could be playing a role in the bees’ behavior. “There are some concerns about GMO crops that can produce a toxin used to battle harmful insects. Those traits are also in nectar and pollen.” [More]

But if no other answer for the Colony Collapse Syndrome arises soon, the scrutiny on GM plants will intensify. While I do not consider the "precautionary principle" a reasonable approach, if something like this honeybee link gets proven - and it looks very unlikely - we're headed straight back to 1990 on our farms. This would put a stake in the heart of GM seeds.

This honeybee thing is getting freaky, and it's worth following.

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