Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Studies Don't Implicate GM Crops In Honeybees Disappearance

Around April this year, a rumor mill somewhere churned out a charge that genetically modified (GM) crops were responsible for mass disappearances of honeybees. Code-named colony collapse disorder, the puzzle-story fast gained traction in the blogsphere and mainly web sites of anti-biotech groups such as the Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Organic Consumer Association (OCA).

OCA, perhaps, exuded the most exuberance at the news. It amplified a blog entry on the Celsias Blog, which argued that honeybees were bound to disappear because of their contact with "...substances they shouldn't have to deal with - pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and pollen from genetically modified crops."

OCA further ran another article, originally published on the web site of Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), which quoted one Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, a UK-based genetic scientist, saying:

Nobody knows why the bees are dying. There is evidence though that GE crops contribute to this, in particular insect resistant crops producing the Bt-toxin. Though healthy bees do not seem to be affected by Bt pollen, a scientist called Hans-Hinrich Kaatz in Germany has found that bees infested with parasites and fed with Bt pollen were affected and died at a high rate. Beekeepers have for years reported that honeybees suffer from high rates of parasites and diseases. As reported last week in a German journal [Der Spiegel], this resembles new evidence that Bt pollen is a contributing factor in the death of the bees. The areas where the bees have disappeared have a lot of Bt crops being grown there. We don't think this is a coincidence. No one would ever have thought that this could have been an outcome of Bt and yet here we are. Not only do we not know exactly how this interaction happened, we don't know how to deal with it or stop it or even if we can.

To not be left out of the debate, I highlighted an article in the journal Science, which discounted fears that GM crops were responsible for honeybees disappearance. GMO Pundit Blog did the same. Two days ago, the New York Times published study findings by a group of entomologists that implicate a bee disease called Israeli acute paralysis virus in the acute colony disorder. The study is available in Science Express, the online edition of journal Science.

These scientific findings are significant in that they disambiguate the cause(s) of honeybees disappearance. Those linking GM crops to the acute colony disorder, it's hoped, have learned a lesson. The studies also uphold the role of science in the debate about GM crops.

James specializes in agricultural biotechnology communication

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