Anthrax Risk From Bacillus Thuringiensis Wildly Exaggerated

Anthrax Risk From Bacillus Thuringiensis Wildly Exaggerated

Organic Insecticide Safe, Biotech “Bt Crops” Even Safer
November 01, 2001

Reports raising public health concerns about a common and safe soil bacterium used in organic farming and in some biotech crops are unwarranted, a coalition of non-profit organizations that research agriculture, food, and health issues said today. According to researchers at the American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Consumer Alert, the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, used as an organic insecticide and as the source for a pest-resistant gene for some biotech crops, has been misleadingly and inappropriately linked with the bacterium that causes anthrax by opponents of biotechnology and modern agricultural practices. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and Bacillus thuringiensis are closely related species. But while B. anthracis is a potentially deadly microbe, B. thuringiensis has been used for decades as a safe and effective organic insecticide. “The risks of anthrax-exposure from organic foods and other crops sprayed with Bt bacteria are infinitesimally small,” said Alex Avery, Director of Research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, “More importantly, an anthrax risk from biotech crops is non-existent. This is just an opportunistic attempt to mislead the public and falsely attack biotechnology with guilt by association.”

Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria make proteins that are toxic to some insects but are harmless to birds, fish, mammals, and humans. Liquid preparations of B. thuringiensis bacteria, known as Bt sprays, have been applied to food crops as an insecticide for over 30 years, and the USDA has approved the use of Bt sprays under its new National Organic Standards. The gene responsible for generating the pest-resistant protein has also been used in some biotech crop varieties, including corn and cotton.

Anti-biotechnology activists are now calling for renewed caution in the use of Bt products and bans on biotech crops because of heightened awareness of anthrax and the close genetic relationship between the two microbes.  Commentaries circulating among Internet discussion platforms run by the pro-organic and anti-biotechnology Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Organic Consumers Association charge that, “Bt can easily take up an anthrax plasmid and create anthrax related disease,” and “gene exchange could occur in the soil between [biotech] plant debris and bacteria.”

Such a tactic in the anti-biotech campaign is likely to backfire, however, as it highlights important differences between Bt bacteria used in organic farming and the single Bt gene used in biotech crops. Although it is not theoretically impossible for the whole Bt bacteria to mutate into B.  anthracis, biotech crops use only the single gene from Bt that produces the insecticidal protein. “While there is an extremely small chance that organic Bt bacteria could mutate and become dangerous, anthrax-like illnesses from biotech crops that use only the single Bt gene are just not plausible” said Ruth Kava, Ph.D., Director of Nutrition with the American Council on Science and Health. “With biotech Bt crops, you get the pest protection, without live bacteria,” added Kava.

“If protest groups are so concerned about anthrax risk from Bt, you’d think they would turn their indignation against organic agriculture and rethink their opposition to biotechnology,” said Gregory Conko, Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “But in reality there is really no substance behind this scare.”

The American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Consumer Alert are members of a pro-science and pro-technology coalition on food and farming issues called the National Consumer Coalition.

For more information, contact Alex Avery at (540) 337-6354.