A synthesis of laboratory and field studies on the effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize on non-target Lepidoptera

Authors


*A. Lang, Institute of Environmental Geosciences, Bernoullistrasse 30, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland. E-mail: andreas.lang@unibas.ch

Abstract

One of the major applications of transgenic crops in agriculture are the so-called Bacillus thuringiensis Berliner (Bt) plants, in particular Bt maizes, which produce insecticidal Cry proteins that target specific orders, such as the Lepidoptera or Coleoptera. We reviewed publications that reported on the direct toxic effects of Bt-maize and/or Cry proteins of current Bt-maize events on larvae of non-target butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). In total, 20 peer-reviewed publications were identified, of which 16 papers contributed laboratory-based data and seven field-based data. An adverse effect on caterpillars was recorded in 52% of all laboratory-based and in 21% of all field-based observations. The variables most often studied and having the highest occurrence of effects were larval survival, body mass, and developmental time. Parameters of the adult stage were under-represented in the studies. Overall, 11 lepidopteran species were tested. The majority of the studies originated from the USA, with the Monarch butterfly being the most studied, whereas other species and other parts of the world were widely neglected. Laboratory experiments were often run under unrealistic conditions from an ecological point of view. Although the papers we reviewed indicated a potential hazard for Lepidoptera that are exposed to and feed on lepidopteran-specific Bt-maize pollen, a general conclusion on the level of risk for butterflies and moths cannot as yet be drawn. A comprehensive risk characterization would require thorough hazard identification, exposure assessment, and impact assessment. However, our review showed that even the basic level of hazard characterization is as yet incomplete. Reasons for this are the still-limited numbers of publications and concurrent lack of knowledge, the restriction of data to only a few species, the over-representation of North American species, and the identified limitations of both laboratory and field experiments. The findings of this review suggest that more realistic, ecologically meaningful, and detailed experiments and analyses are crucial to improve the present assessment of Bt-maize cultivation effects on Lepidoptera.

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