Thanks to Brad Duplisea for posting this from
The Gazette (Montreal)
Mon 22 Feb 1999
PAGE NUMBER B2
A Bad Taste Left , by Mark Abley
Genetically modified food is on sale at all Canadian supermarkets. Health
Canada to date has approved 40 engineered foods and those foods can be
found in hundreds of processed products that contain corn oil, canola oil,
soybeans, tomato paste and potatoes. There is nothing to tell Canadian
consumers that what they are about to ingest come from plants or animals
that have been genetically altered.
In the multi-billion dollar industry that biotechnology has become, the
consumer seems to have got short shrift. Most consumers want to be able to
choose what they eat, and for that they need to know truly basic and
important things like whether it has been genetically altered.
The most convenient way to know whether food has been genetically
engineered would be to have a uniform, worldwide system of identifying food
that has undergone genetic alterations. No such thing exists and even this
week as 130 countries continue to meet in Colombia to thrash out the
world's first treaty on genetically modified food, there was no mention of
the need to inform consumers. As things stand now, the only sure approach
is to buy food that a producer certifies is wholly natural.
Producers of genetically modified food are reluctant to label their produce
as such. On the few occasions that a food has been labeled as genetically
modified, consumers have rejected it. The average consumer - made nervous
by scandals like Britain's mad cow disease - is in no mood to put implicit
trust in the hands of food producers or government or multinational
Biotechnology firms have long played down the possible dangers of ingestion
by animals and humans of genetically modified food, but those dangers
include the spread of toxins, allergies and resistance to antibiotics.
These firms also show little sympathy with the public's desire for more
long-term testing. While some scientists and environmentalists claim it
takes a generation to know the implications of new technology,
bio-engineering companies continue to simply insist their products are
While they may in fact turn out to be safe, there should be greater concern
with people's right to know what they are eating. That right should have
been at the centre of the negotiations in Colombia, yet trade issues
appeared to far overweigh any concerns the public may have about
For food and pharmaceutical companies in the United States alone, there is
an annual $60 billion in trade at stake. Giants like Monsanto Co. of St.
Louis led the push in Colombia to make sure that the negotiations would not
end in a reduction of trade in genetically modified products. The Americans
were backed by other major grain exporters like Canada, Australia and
Arguments in favour of genetically modified plants include a decreased need
for pesticides and herbicides, surely a boon for the environment. But
biotechnology companies don't seem to want to make their case in public.
Granted, it's not helpful when they don't seem to have anything
to offer the consumer other than tomatoes that are redder than normal, but
public distrust will probably only grow in the absence of compelling
arguments in favour of genetical modification. Today's public is rightly
reluctant to take anything at face value.
As the 500 delegates meeting in Cartagena today try to hammer out the rules
for the import, export and use of crops and food that have been genetically
engineered, they should think about adding one more rule: the consumer
should be informed.
The Gazette (Montreal)
Thanks to Tom Balint <firstname.lastname@example.org> for posting this:
Sat 20 Feb 1999
PAGE NUMBER D11
BYLINE John Greenwood
Terminator gene trips alarms: A snippet of genetic material that causes
crops to become infertile is drawing grave criticism. Modified plants still
develop normally, but their seeds will not germinate, forcing farmers to
buy a new supply every spring. Critics claim it's a corporate conspiracy to
control world agriculture, and ecological disaster is a possibility.
Looking back, Mel Oliver is still a little shocked at all the fuss over his
little switcheroo with the plant DNA. His employer, the United States
Department of Agriculture, calls Dr. Oliver's invention a ``Technology
Protection System.'' So does the Delta and Pine Land Co., a leading U.S.
cotton seed company, which is bankrolling his research. The rest of the
world knows it as the ``Terminator gene.'' In the past, seed companies have
used biotechnology to boost crop yields, but this is different. In essence,
the Terminator is a self-destruct mechanism, a snippet of genetic material
that causes crops to become infertile. Plants that have been modified to
include the trait still grow and develop normally but their seeds will not
germinate, forcing farmers to buy a new supply every spring.
The trouble started last March, around about the time Dr. Oliver's name
appeared on a patent, jointly held by the USDA and Delta and Pine,
innocently entitled ``control of plant gene expression.'' Suddenly the once
obscure scientist found himself on the receiving end of rants delivered by
people he'd never heard of from all over the United States, Canada, and
across Europe. They said he was part of a corporate conspiracy to control
world agriculture, and the Terminator gene would cross over into wild
plants and ecological disaster would result.
At first, Dr. Oliver tried to talk to his critics, to explain how that
could never happen, and that in the long run farmers would benefit. He soon
gave that up. ``Their arguments were remarkably obtuse,'' he says wearily.
``I think they had their own agenda.''
Last May, the U.S. agri-giant Monsanto Co. agreed to acquire Delta and Pine
Land for $1.9-billion (all figures in U.S. dollars) and the controversy
rose to a new level of intensity.
Terminator technology has now become a subject of heated debate in
parliaments all over Europe, and in a flash point in the battle over
whether to allow genetically modified foods into stores. In India, the
backlash against Terminator technology has been even more virulent,
including one incident where angry crowds burned an experimental crop on
the strength of a rumour (false, as it turned out) that Dr. Oliver's
invention was being tested there.
Even Monsanto agrees the Terminator will have an enormous impact on the
agriculture industry. The question is, who benefits? Monsanto says it's a
win-win situation. The farmers are not so sure. ``We don't need that
technology,'' says Ken Archibald, president of the Western Canadian Wheat
Growers Association. He worries that it will put too much power in the
hands of seed producers.
Others fear that if Monsanto goes ahead with Terminator technology, it will
only fuel growing public anger, particularly in Europe, over genetically
modified food. Canada, which now accounts for a significant proportion of
the world's genetically modified crops, could lose in a big way if other
countries opt to take action.
It is a testament to the break-neck pace at which agricultural
biotechnology is developing that one of its most significant creations has
become a public relations liability of alarming proportions.
As recently as the late 1980s, the business of coming up with new varieties
was mostly handled by government departments that employed traditional
breeding methods. But plant breeding is a hit-and-miss affair. You match
plants with desirable properties and hope for the best.
By contrast, genetic engineering, in which scientists cut and paste DNA
from different species to create so-called designer crops, is light-years
Take for example Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, genetically modified to
tolerate the company's Roundup herbicide. Farmers can spray the crop
directly killing only weeds with the result that they use less herbicide.
In less than five years it's become one of Monsanto's top selling biotech
products. Bt corn, a variety invented by the Swiss giant Novartis AG, makes
its own pesticide. It contains a bacteria gene that codes for the
production of a natural toxin (harmful only to the European Corn Borer).
One company is said to be pasting jellyfish genes into wheat so as to
render the plants fluorescent -- the idea being that they would start to
glow when they needed water. Still another company has slipped leech genes
into canola DNA to produce a life-saving clot-busting drug.
The science is astounding, but so is the dollar figures. Ag-biotech
companies say it costs them between $30-million and $100-million to develop
a single transgenic variety. As an industry, they've already forked out
billions. They want to recoup their investment through seed sales, but
there's a problem with that.
For thousands of years farmers have been saving last year's seed to grow
next year's crop. All over the world farmers regard the practice as a right
and one of the few ways they can stay in business during lean years. In the
developing world it's a necessity. Not surprisingly, industry's attempts to
change things haven't been a roaring success.
Monsanto, for example, requires farmers to sign a ``technology use''
agreement before allowing them to buy genetically engineered seed --
basically, a promise not to save it. To ensure the farmers take heed,
Monsanto deploys a small army of ``seed police'' who monitor who's growing
what. The agreement gives them the right to go onto a farm and inspect the
contents of the barn and fields when ever they choose. The farmers hate it.
The system is expensive and not particularly effective.
In some parts of the United States, particularly cotton growing areas, seed
piracy has become so widespread that the ag-biotech companies have been
forced to suspend crop development programs.
It's not the first time the industry has grappled with the issue. Years
ago, researchers came up with hybrid seeds that rapidly lose their potency
after each new generation. But hybrids had their drawbacks, too.
By the time Mel Oliver arrived on the scene, the search for a way to
control the flow of genetic technology had become the industry's Holy
Born and raised in England, Dr. Oliver came to the University of Calgary, a
world leader in crop development, to do his graduate work. In 1983, he
earned his PhD in plant genetics. In 1990, after teaching stints at two
U.S. universities, he joined the USDA as a research geneticist.
Then, and now, most of Dr. Oliver's work has been in the study of traits
that enable plants to survive drought. ``This is my biggest achievement,''
he says. In time, he believes his his work will lead to the development of
new, super-hardy crops, such as rice. ``If you can alter drought tolerance
by just 10%, you can do a significant amount, it means farmers can use
semi-arid land where before they couldn't,'' he says. Even if they knew of
this work, Dr. Oliver's critics would likely not share his confidence.
Part of the USDA's mandate is to look out for the interests of the
agricultural industry. So it was not unusual when, back in the early 1990s,
Dr. Oliver was asked by Delta and Pine Land, based in Scott, Miss., to
think about a technology protection system. There was a group of them, he
recalls, both breeders and scientists, and they had come to see him at the
USDA's offices in Lubbock, Tex. ``We were all sitting around a desk here,''
he recalls. ``We were looking at ways of developing a hybrid system and we
discussed ways of doing that, but later decided it was way to expensive to
The meeting ended without success but that night, Dr. Oliver had a
brainwave. ``I woke up and I went, `oh, that's how you do it,' '' he says.
``I know it sounds a bit trite, but that's how it happened.''
Though the details would take months to flesh out, Dr. Oliver saw how the
system might work. The Technology Protection System is actually a group of
three genes -- two from bacteria and one from a plant. They come into play
only when triggered by a chemical wash given before the seed is sold.
Patent number 5,723,765 for the control of plant gene expression was issued
in the United States last year, and patents are pending in more than 80
countries, including Canada.
One of the most vocal critics of the technology is the Rural Advancement
Foundation International, a Winnipeg-based organization that describes
itself as dedicated to the interests of farmers around the world. Over the
past year, RAFI has launched a global protest against Monsanto and its
technology protection system. When searching on the Internet for
Terminator, nine out of 10 references are courtesy of RAFI. But the cry has
also been taken up by an assortment of environmentalists and groups
fighting for legislation against genetically modified food. Despite RAFI's
Canadian base, the fiercest skirmishes against Terminator technology have
been fought in Europe.
The main argument of the anti-Terminator contingent is that the technology
only benefits big business. They say the seed companies will use it as a
tool to force farmers to buy their product instead of using the traditional
unmodified varieties. The final result, they say, will be that millions of
subsistence farming families who can't afford the new designer seeds coming
down the pipe will be forced from their land.
In Europe, the issue is wrapped up in the debate over genetically modified
crops, something many see as the thin edge of a Faustian wedge being driven
by technocrat businessmen too busy playing God to realize the dangers of
what they're pushing.
They claim that the biotechnology companies need to do more research to
prove that genetically modified products are safe. Last year, Dr. Arpad
Pusztai, a British scientist, set off an uproar in the media there after
claiming that rats fed a diet of genetically altered potatoes had suffered
damage to their immune systems. His employers at the Rowett Research
Institute in Aberdeen, which receives funding from biotechnology companies,
said he was mistaken.
Some groups go even further. They fear a nightmare scenario where the
suicide gene somehow crosses the divide into wild species, eventually
killing them off.
Supporters of the technology counter that that's exactly the kind of thing
it's designed to prevent. In the rare event that a modified plant does
breed with a wild variety, they say the modified traits would disappear in
a single generation.
``I don't think people need to worry about this technology, in fact they
should be happy about it stopping transgenic genes from getting into the
environment,'' says Dr. Oliver. Most experts agree that that facts are, by
and large, on Dr. Oliver's side.
Still, there are nagging doubts. At one point, the industry claimed that
modified traits would not survive in wild species, because they would be a
liability. But that appears not to be the case. Already scientists have
documented a number of cases where wild weeds have acquired, for instance,
a tolerance for Roundup herbicide, which has stood them very well in the
As for the argument that Terminator technology will put farmers out of
business, Delta and Pine Land says that doesn't hold water either. Harry
Collins, the company's vice-president of technology transfer, believes it
will actually work to the farmers' advantage. Dr. Collins argues that the
Terminator will enable companies like his to justify their investment in
transgenic research. They will spend more money developing superior crops
and farmers will end up with access to high quality seeds they wouldn't
otherwise be able to buy.
Third World farmers would benefit too, he says. His company has no interest
in putting its Terminator into traditional crops. Terminator technology is
expensive and would only make economic sense in top-of-the-line Cadillac
crops. Farmers will always have the choice, he says, either to save their
traditional seed, or to invest in superior modified varieties.
But farmers should take comfort in the fact that they will have the final
say. If in the end it doesn't pay them to grow newfangled genetically
modified crops, they'll stop buying them. And Monsanto will lose its
next article posted by Judy_Kew@greenbuilder.com (Judy Kew)
U.S. SCURRIES TO SCUTTLE BIOTECH TRADE CURBS FATE OF GENE-ALTERED PRODUCE
SPLITS FACTIONS AT COLOMBIAN CONFERENCE
(Florida Today; 02/14/99)
The U.S. government and scores of corporations are scrambling to prevent a
proposed international accord from sharply restricting the global flow of
hundreds of billions of dollars worth of genetically engineered products,
ranging from cotton seeds to soft drinks.
The intensive lobbying effort will climax this week as negotiators from
more than 170 countries convene to draw up final language on the pact.
It would be the world's first accord to regulate the spread of genetically
manipulated organisms. Depending on how the agreement is worded, it could
promote or restrict the burgeoning biotechnology industry worldwide.
Despite years of preparatory negotiations, however, philosophical rifts
loom between the handful of countries ready and eager to ship genetically
engineered products around the world and the many other countries that
remain wary of the biotechnology revolution.
Environmental groups see the proposed agreement as their first opportunity
to set ecological standards for trade in gene-altered crops, livestock and
Yet many American companies - along with the governments of the United
States, Canada, Australia and others - are alarmed about draft language
they say could undermine the global economy and severely disrupt world
Former President Jimmy Carter and others have warned that if a badly worded
agreement goes through, grain could rot on docks, regulators could freeze
shipments of vaccines and other vital drugs, and trade in products as
mundane as corn oil and paper could slow to a snail's pace.
"If applied broadly, this could affect an enormous amount of trade," said
Rafe Pomerance, a deputy assistant secretary of state and one of several
observers attending the talks in Cartegena.
But diplomats from several other countries contend the greater risk is that
unregulated trade in gene-altered seeds, microbes, plants or animals will
seriously harm the environment and human health. They say scenarios of
stymied world trade amount to scare- mongering by governments and
commercial interests opposed to tighter control over the growing global
marketplace in genes.
"Genetic pollution is considerably more dangerous than oil spills," said
Kristin Dawkins of the **Institute for Agriculture** and **Trade Policy**
American hopes that the accord ultimately will favor less stringent trade
rules were weakened Thursday as the European Parliament passed new
restrictions on the importation and use of genetically engineered seeds and
organisms. Several of the new provisions, including a demand that
exporters take on legal liability for environmently damaging genetic
accidents, run directly counter to U.S. positions.
Although the legislation must be passed by the European Council of
Ministers before it becomes law, passage by the parliament was seen by some
as a strong signal of support for countries pushing for more regulation.
No country has more to lose from overly strict regulation than the United
States. It is the world leader in biotechnology, making and exporting a
wide variety of products whose manufacture depends in some way on
organisms that have been genetically altered, including the glue in many
cardboards, the corn sweetener in soft drinks, much of the insulin that
keeps diabetics healthy,
many of the vaccines that protect children from deadly ailments and
thousands of other products.
Lately, however, concerns have grown about the potential ecological, social
and economic effects of world commerce in engineered seeds, organisms and
biotech products. Although there has been little public controversy in the
United States, genetic engineering has become highly controversial in many
European and developing countries.
Some fear that engineered microbes or plants will disrupt local ecologies
and undermine traditional farming practices. Others have focused on
perceived, albeit unproven, health threats from eating genetically
engineered grains or cereals. A third concern is that important economic
sectors in some developing countries could be undermined by scientists'
ability to grow rare food ingredients or flavorings in the laboratory.
The "biosafety protocol" being negotiated in Cartegena is an outgrowth of a
treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity, which emerged from
the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The diversity agreement, ratified by 174 nations, calls for protecting the
variety of plants and animals found in the wild. Ecologists have recognized
that diversity, which is under grave threat from development and other
human pressures, is one of Earth's most valuable treasures.
Unfortunately for the United States, the many U.S. government and industry
representatives traveling to Cartegena have no official standing in the
weeklong talks because the U.S. Senate never ratified the Convention on
Biological Diversity. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1993. But
lingering U.S. concerns have stalled Senate approval.
At a glance
The "biosafety protocol" being negotiated in Cartegena is an outgrowth of
the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect wild plants and animals,
ratified by 174 nations since the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as
previous genetic engineering news items
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