The Ottawa Citizen
March 01, 1999,
Starlings and snails that speak nothing but trouble
In the 1870s, New York theatre afficionado Eugene Schieffelin had the
romantic thought of collecting all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's
plays and releasing them into the New World.
Schieffelin assiduously scanned the Bard's work and found a single line
mentioning the starling (''I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
nothing but 'Mortimer'''). With that, starlings came to America and became
a continent-wide plague that devastated native species like bluebirds and
Eugene Schieffelin may seem a quaint and foolish relic of the 19th century
but he has his modern disciples: The scientists and businessmen of the
biotechnology industry. In the last 20 years, biotech's ability to snip
genes from one species and splice them into others has exploded, creating
countless life forms as novel as tomatoes with fish genes. By some
estimates, as much as 40 per cent of all crops grown in the United States
are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) .
In Canada, more than 40 per cent of canola is genetically modified, as is
one quarter of the soy beans and corn. It may not be so romantic as
Schieffelin's Shakespearean project, but the biotech industry is
introducing its own exotic menagerie to the world. Despite the
environmental dangers in this, the only tough public questioning the
industry has faced is over the issue of human health -- and even that
concern has mainly been restricted to Europe.
Certainly health concerns have to be taken seriously, but there is, so far,
only the weakest evidence that foods made with GMOs may put human health at
risk. What's more, those risks can be readily studied and determined. Human
biology may be complex, but we are, after all, only one life form. The more
intimidating question is what happens when GMOs are released into the
environment to interact with millions of life forms?
First, we do know that GMOs in the field can ''escape'' into the wider
environment any number of ways. For one, a genetically modified crop can
cross-pollinate with its wild cousins, passing on some of its engineered
traits. A plant created to be resistant to herbicide could pass on that
resistance, spawning weeds that cannot be controlled by conventional
Nor is reproduction the only way genes can be passed. ''Horizontal gene
transfer'' passes genes between unrelated organisms, a fairly common
process at the microbial level. Some scientists believe GMOs, because of
the way they are created, are especially likely to transfer genes
horizontally. The biotech industry protests that GMOs are not just
unleashed on the environment, they're controlled and tested for safety.
But the extent to which GMOs can be contained and their risks determined
depends on how well we understand the environment. The problem is, we've
learned only enough about the environment to know how little we know.
Recent history bears this out. In the early 1980s, a century after
starlings came to New York, the golden-apple snail was brought to
south-east Asia from South America as a food crop.
With all our science and experience, it had to be safe, right? What harm
can a snail do? Plenty. The snail spread through irrigation systems into
rice paddies, where it devoured rice seedlings and thrived. Today, it
devastates rice all over the region, and also acts as a carrier of a
lungworm which can infect and kill humans. Oops.
There are hundreds of similar examples. Often it takes years to realize an
invader is expanding and even longer to understand the full extent of the
damage done. Who could possibly have anticipated that an alien grass in
Idaho would set in motion a chain reaction which threatens the region's
And once invaders are established, they are all but impossible to stop. Not
even DDT could touch the gypsy moth. Purple loosestrife, as wetland owners
across Ontario are discovering, is all but indestructible.
So what can be done to ensure the mistakes made with starlings, snails, and
countless other species aren't repeated with GMOs? For starters, we need an
international agreement that allows countries to block the import of a GMO,
without fear of trade sanctions, until it is proven safe to local
ecosystems - -which may well be never.
Just such an agreement was nearly reached last week at ''Biosafety
Protocol'' talks in Colombia, but the implacable opposition of six
countries scuttled it at the last minute. One of the six was Canada. So
biotech companies will continue to spread GMOs, risking ecosystems in ways
we cannot imagine. At least that romantic fool Eugene Schieffelin could say
he didn't know any better. Dan Gardner is a member of the Citizen's
editorial board. E- mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Read previous Dan
Gardner columns at www.ottawacitizen.com
The Western Producer (Saskatchewan, Canada) Feb 25, 1999
EU closed to modified food - Anyone betting that Canadian canola will soon
be allowed into Europe just saw their odds worsen. Because some Canadian
canola is genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, all of it has
been banned from the European Union for some years. In the last six months
the EU, particularly Britain, appeared to be warming slightly to
genetically modified, or GM, crops as governments began to worry they were
falling behind in a major new economic field. However, the direction was
reversed dramatically two weeks ago.
That is when 21 international scientists announced they supported the
findings of Arpad Pusztai, who was forced to retire last year after he said
his experiments indicated GM food can damage rats' vital organs and weaken
the immune system.
"Dr. Pusztai's results, at the very least, raise the suspicion that
genetically modified food may damage the immune system," Dr. Ronald Finn, a
past-president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental
Medicine, said in a story carried by Reuters news service.
Pusztai, a world authority on plant proteins, was forced to leave the
Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, two days after revealing
preliminary findings in a television documentary. The institute said his
claims could not be substantiated.
But a later review of Pusztai's research by Stanley Ewen, a pathologist at
Aberdeen University Medical School, supported the conclusions.
The scientists said not enough is known about the effects of GM food and
more research is needed. They want better labeling and suggested GM foods
should undergo the same stringent trials as drugs before they are approved.
The news set off a media storm and outrageous talk of "Frankenfood." In
British parliament, the opposition demanded labeling for GM foods.
A consortium of consumer, world development and environmental groups
demanded a five-year moratorium on the growing of GM crops in Britain.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney vowed to eliminate GM ingredients from his late
wife Linda's range of vegetarian foods.
A national newspaper poll said a strong majority of Britons are worried
about eating the food and 96 percent want GM food labeling.
Canada cannot dismiss this as hysteria. For our own health, Pusztai's
findings must be investigated further.
Farm groups encouraging research into GM crops must be cautious and
watchful of how other major markets react to these latest developments.
We don't want to wind up with crops that are easy to grow, but which have
Rutland Times (Isle of Wight indpendent paper)
February 26, 1999
D-day looms on GM foods
'Frankenstein' food could be off school menus after the Local Government
Association recommended a five-year ban on its use in council schools,
residential homes and meals on wheels services. Members of the association
approved the recommendation when they met on Wednesday. It will now have
dramatic consequences for local authorities nationwide and Rutland County
Council is just one that could be forced into action. LGA committee
chairman Coun John Ryan warned: "As major buyers and suppliers of food
councils should be very cautious on behalf of the public, many of whom are
vulnerable such as children and the elderly.
The public's confidence in GM food is so low at the moment that councils
would be well advised to follow our recommendations. As community leaders,
local authorities have a responsibility to listen to people's worries and
take measures to restore their confidence at all costs."
The council - which has no official policy on GM foods - has said that the
issue is not a top priority.
And in a letter to the Rutland Times last week Director of Education Keith
Bartley defended its position by saying he wanted to "put the record
He said: "The reason that no policy has yet been established in Rutland is
because I do not believe in formulating policies which are not capable of
enforcement. As soon as we have sufficient, valid information to act on we
will. Until then I see little point in banning something that we cannot
detect and which we do not even know is capable of being defined."
He said that no-one knew for sure whether they were eating genetically
modified food or not, "Even home-grown produce is grown from seeds and we
have to take the supplier's word that our seeds are not from genetically
I can give the assurance that the food served in our schools does not
knowingly contain any genetically modified products."
1) Monsanto may face UK censure for GM food ads
LONDON (Reuters) -
U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. could face censure for an
advertising campaign that critics claim misled the British public about the
safety of genetically modified food, the Advertising Standards Authority
(ASA) said Monday. The ASA confirmed it had prepared a draft report that
condemned the company for making "wrong, unproven, misleading and
confusing" claims in a press campaign it ran last summer. The ads claimed
that GM technology had undergone "rigorous tests throughout Monsanto's
20-year biotech history to ensure our food crops are as safe and nutritious
as the standard alternatives" and that GM foods were "grown in a more
environmentally sustainable way, less dependent on the earth's scarce
Birmingham Post March 1, 1999, Monday
5) MONSANTO'S GM FOOD CAMPAIGN 'MISLEADING'
BYLINE: Cahal Milmo
A pounds 1 million media campaign by genetically -modified foods giant
Monsanto has been criticised by the advertising watchdog as "wrong" and
"misleading". The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld six out of
13 complaints in a draft report into claims made last year by the US-owned
biotechnology company about the safety of genetically -modified crops. The
document shows Monsanto is criticised for passing off its opinion "as
accepted fact" and suggesting that GM potatoes and tomatoes have been
approved for sale in Britain. Campaigners against the so-called
"Frankenstein foods" welcomed the ruling, which has yet to be approved by
the ASA's governing council, as proof of their claims that Monsanto was
trying to distort debate on the issue.
[End part 1]
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