for National Geographic News
A type of genetically modified (GM) crop that resists pests may be a better alternative to farming with insecticides, a new report says.
These crops contain a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a common bacterium found in soil.
The gene helps the plants produce proteins that are toxic to certain insects. Some Bt crops are designed to only kill caterpillars, others to only kill beetles. (Learn how scientists insert genes into plant and animal DNA.)
The Bt crops did not seem to kill all the insects that come into contact with them, whereas insecticides do.
"Insecticides generally have a broad spectrum, and they kill lots of different types of insects, not just the pests," said study author Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University in California. Bt crops, Marvier said, are much more specific in their action.
"Ideally, it would be best to see a reduction in the target pest species, but not much of a reduction in the other species that live on and around farms," Marvier said.
However, Marvier and colleagues caution that the study looked only at corn and cotton and that the findings may not apply to all GM crops.
The Good Guys
Researchers point out that most studies by industry, which are submitted to government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been poorly replicated and therefore might have missed important side effects of the GM crops.
So Marvier and her colleagues, who are not associated with the U.S. government or industry, analyzed the results of 42 field trials to discover the effect of Bt crops on "nontarget pests"—the insects not harmful to crops.
"The nontarget invertebrates are the 'good guys,'" Marvier said.
"These are the honeybees, the earthworms, the ladybird beetles, and so on. They may also include some plant-feeding insects, but even these are not the ones that Bt is meant to kill."
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