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Impact of GMO’s on Non-Target Organisms. Peter C. Ellsworth, Ph.D. IPM Specialist, University of Arizona & Steve Naranjo, Ph.D. Research Scientist, USDA-ARS, WCRL. Disclosure.

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impact of gmo s on non target organisms

Impact of GMO’s on Non-Target Organisms

Peter C. Ellsworth, Ph.D.

IPM Specialist, University of Arizona


Steve Naranjo, Ph.D.

Research Scientist, USDA-ARS, WCRL

  • Those engaged in the dialog on biotechnology should fully disclose their relationships and opinions “up front” so that audiences can consider the context.
  • Partial support for my research comes from companies with interests in biotechnology.
  • The balance of support comes from state and federal sources of competitively available public funds.
disclosure continued
Disclosure (continued)
  • Biotechnology and its products are neither inherently good nor bad.
  • The specific process and each of its products should be scientifically and independently evaluated.
science or emotion
Science or Emotion?
  • Proponents and opponents of biotechnology have made ample use of both.
  • However, emotion tends to rule in the court of public opinion.
public opinion
Public Opinion
  • “Unintended consequences: pelicans nearly wiped out by DDT, massive radiation leaked at Chernobyl, now butterflies killed by genetically modified corn…”

Full page back cover of “blue” magazine; Patagonia, 2001

public opinion1
Public Opinion
  • “… The list of environmental damage caused by inadequately tested technologies is long. With genetic engineering unleashed on the world the list may grow much, much longer. We don’t yet know all the impacts and dangers of genetic engineering. Shouldn’t we find out the risks before we turn genetically modified organisms loose on the world, or eat them in our food?”
public opinion2
...with an X-Acto blade to cheat the outcome: to solve the puzzle by reshaping its pieces to our own devising.”Public Opinion

“Our species, as yet unable to see the whole, or to know how it works, now stands poised...

From; Patagonia, 2001

are scientists mad
Are Scientists Mad?

“For the past decade, biotech’s mad scientists have been telling consumers not to worry about Frankenstein foods….

…The biotech industry and governments have done almost no safety testing of GE foods….

…Millions of acres of GE crops are spreading genetic pollution, creating superweeds and pests, disrupting the balance between pests and natural predators, and killing butterflies and beneficial soil microorganisms. The more we learn about Frankenfoods and crops, the scarier they appear.”

From BioDemocracy News #40, “The Death of Frankenfoods”, August 2002

powerful imagery
Bikini Atoll

Mad Cow Disease

“And we now have a solid modern history of stuff that’s come out of labs that should have stayed there.”


Brown Pelican & DDT

Thalidomide Babies

Patagonia, 2002

Powerful Imagery
gmo s social platform
GMO’s: Social Platform?
  • Starbucks Global Week of Action (Sept. 21-28, 2002)
  • Remove genetically engineered ingredients from their food and dairy products on a worldwide basis,
  • Improve working conditions for coffee plantation workers, and brew and seriously promote fair trade coffee in all of their cafes.

From Organic Consumers Association;

a hungry planet
A Hungry Planet?
  • 1.85 Billion people (30%) are hungry in the world today (FAO, 2002).
  • 36 Million people (13%) go hungry in the U.S. today (USDA, 2002).
  • 2.5 - 6 Million people (20-50%) starving in Zambia today, yet…
  • Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa recently rejected FREE corn (10,000 tons) offered by the U.S., because it was not GMO-free.
so what is the story
So What Is The Story?
  • Monarch Butterfly, symbol of nature and “wildness” in North America.
bt corn sheds pollen
Bt Corn Sheds Pollen
  • Some of which may fall on milkweed plants that serve as hosts for Monarchs.
  • Bt corn pollen may contain some quantity of the Bt endotoxin.
monarchs are killed
Monarchs Are Killed?
  • Scientists have shown that larvae are killed when fed milkweed “dusted” with Bt corn pollen.
  • But how realistic was this study?
pnas temporal spatial distribution of monarchs
PNAS: Temporal & Spatial Distribution of Monarchs…
  • Per plant densities of larvae, similar among habitats (i.e., ag. vs. non-ag. lands)
  • For upper Midwest, most Monarchs are, in fact, produced on agricultural lands!
  • Regardless of Bt corn, other agricultural practices like foliar insecticide use and weed control could have large impacts on populations of Monarchs

From Oberhauser et al., 2001

pnas corn pollen deposits on milkweed
PNAS: Corn Pollen Deposits on Milkweed…
  • Average 171 pollen grains per sq. cm. in corn fields
  • Average 14 pollen grains per sq. cm. 6 ft outside of the corn field
  • One rain removes 54-86% of the pollen
  • Youngest leaves, the preferred food, have 50-70% lower pollen density than older leaves

From Pleasants et al., 2001

pnas field mortality of monarchs
PNAS: Field Mortality of Monarchs…
  • 50% of Monarch larvae died in the first 24 hrs
    • NONE related to proximity to Bt corn
  • But slower growth of Black Swallowtails likely related to pollen exposure
    • for Event 176 (Novartis) only

From Zanger et al., 2001

pnas field impact of cry1ab 3 events
PNAS: Field Impact of Cry1Ab (3 events)…

Compared to lambda-cyhalothrin which killed most Monarch larvae

From Stanley-Horn et al., 2001

pnas a risk assessment
PNAS: A Risk Assessment...

Hazard =

Exposure =

Risk =

Acute toxic effects of pollen

Probability of larvae being exposed to toxic levels in and around corn fields


“This two year study suggests that the impact of Bt corn pollen from current commercial hybrids on Monarch Butterfly populations is negligible.”

From Sears et al., 2001

non target organisms nto
Non-Target Organisms (NTO)
  • Search for unintended consequences of technology (e.g., Bt cotton) on biodiversity.
  • Through direct effects, i.e., toxic effects on non-target species,
  • Or through indirect effects, i.e., through non-target species feeding on intoxicated hosts.
natural enemy abundance no insecticides
Natural Enemy AbundanceNo Insecticides

P = 0.18

P = 0.29

Bt cotton


natural enemy abundance insecticides as needed
Natural Enemy AbundanceInsecticides as needed

Bt cotton




non target organisms nto1
Non-Target Organisms (NTO)
  • Over 370 arthropod species have been tracked in 2 years of field studies using a variety of methodologies.
  • So far, no major or functional differences have been found in Arizona between BG, BGII, and conventional cotton communities…
  • Except where harsh PBW sprays are needed in conventional cottons.
  • Thus, Bt cotton ecosystems are not only safe, but safer than conventional cotton ecosystems where insecticidal inputs are higher.


  • All University of Arizona crop production & crop protection information is available on our web site,
  • Arizona Crop Information Site (ACIS), at