Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday, March 13, 1999
Label gene food, says jury
By DEBORAH SMITH
After deliberating through the night until dawn, a citizen's jury at
Australia's inaugural consensus conference brought down a unanimous report
yesterday recommending that all genetically modified (GM) foods be labelled.
The 14-member lay panel also called, in effect, for a short moratorium on
any new commercial releases of GM foods in Australia, or the importation of
unlabelled ones, until a better regulatory system was in place.
It criticised the present regulatory bodies, including the Australia and
New Zealand Food Authority which assesses the safety of new GM foods, for
not serving community interests. It said: "The decision-making process is
currently inaccessible and open to bias." It recommended a new statutory
authority be established to oversee the introduction of gene technology,
and that its deliberations be public.
"The speed at which GM organisms have been developed and introduced by
multinational companies and the scientific community has left many people
completely unaware of and uninvolved in the process," the panel said.
posted by <email@example.com> To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999
PUBLICATION: The Spectator (UK)
DATE: Fri 12 Mar 1999
BYLINE: Laurent Belsie
Guess what's coming to dinner!: We are what we eat. But what are we
eating? Gene-spliced plants and hormone-treated beef raise serious ethical
questions about the way the world is fooling with Mother Nature
Geneticists are on the verge of revolutionizing agriculture and medicine
in much the same way that computers have transformed business. Labs around
the world are working on crops that could feed a growing planet, plants
that could clean up contaminated soils, and pigs whose organs may one day
get trans-planted into people.
But to do these things, scientists are fooling with nature's basic
building blocks. As they do, they are kicking up dissent around the world
as one nation tries to sell its genetically altered foods to another's
The current food fight between the United States and Europe -- over
hormone-treated beef and genetically altered soy beans -- could be just a
prelude of arguments to come.
That's because the greatest risks probably don't lie with today's simple
genetic alterations. Future rounds of exotic agriculture pose bigger
threats because they will put organisms to completely new uses. The
fundamental question: How much should science manipulate nature to care
And there's no going back, scientists say. Consider the U.S. experience.
While Europeans debate how far to proceed with the new technology, North
Americans are quietly ingesting the new foods, often without knowing it.
``The genie can't be put back,'' says Marshall Martin, an agricultural
economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. ``Anyone who eats
pizza or cheese on their hamburger has consumed genetically modified food
... We pulled the cork out of the bottle in a sense with the discovery of
For example, three-quarters of America's cheese gets its start with a
bio-engineered enzyme. Nearly one out of six dairy farmers injects his
cows with a genetically engineered growth hormone to boost milk production.
And genetically modified crops are increasingly taking over farmlands --
with some 70 million acres planted worldwide, 60 million of it in North
This planting season promises more inroads. For example, half of America's
soybeans, perhaps more of its cotton, and a third of its corn could be
genetically modified -- a remarkable adoption rate in the four years since
the new seeds were introduced. Other countries are also moving rapidly to
incorporate the technology. Last year, some 650,000 farmers in China
planted genetically modified cotton.
And this year Monsanto, which produces the cotton seed, expects to double
Even the European Union has approved bio-engineered soybeans and corn.
Small quantities of corn, genetically modified to resist pests, are being
grown in Spain and, if approved by France's high court, could start
showing up in the fields of Europe's largest corn producer.
Biotech companies such as Monsanto hope that resistance to the technology
will crumble once European farmers begin to adopt the new strains. That
move is likely, companies say, because the new-fangled crops typically
improve yields and cut costs. ``It's likely to be adopted because the
value of the benefits will be recognized,'' says Philip Angell, a Monsanto
spokesman. Take cotton, one of the world's most pest-prone crops. By
incorporating the genes of a natural insecticide, scientists have created
a pest-resistant strain that requires fewer chemicals. It ``has been
massively beneficial,'' says Val Giddings, a vice president of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington. In the three years
since they began using it, U.S. farmers have saved the equivalent of
850,000 gallons of pesticides -- the equivalent of 48 railroad tank cars
Cutting pesticide use saves money.
According to newly released figures by one of Britain's leading
plant-research centres, bio-engineered soybeans saved farmers an average
$30 US a hectare (because they used 40 per cent less herbicide.
Pest-resistant corn saved $42 per hectare. (A hectare represents some 2
Doug Powell, associate professor in the department of plant agriculture at
the University of Guelph sees genetic engineering as ``one additional tool
that allows farmers and food processors to provide nutritious, low-cost
``We always need to be vigilant but I am confident there is a system in
place for this.''
Despite these benefits, environmentalists worry the new crops pose a
bigger hazard to human health and the environment. They've caught the ear
of many Europeans.
The environmental group Greenpeace, for example, has mounted an effective
campaign across Europe to block the sale of genetically modified food.
In February, it persuaded biotech giant AgrEvo (Hoechst) not to conduct
field trials of such crops in Austria.
In January, it organized anti-bio-engineering protests at the national
offices of three European food companies in nine countries. Thanks to a
Greenpeace suit, France's highest administrative court in December upheld
its preliminary ban on genetically modified corn from a Swiss firm.
The debate rings loudest in Britain, where memories of the government's
mishandling of ``mad-cow'' disease remain fresh. The issue has gone all
the way to the top: Prime Minister Tony Blair is risking his popularity to
support genetically modified foods, while Prince Charles says he will
never eat any of them. Further confounding the issue have been the
findings of Arpad Pusztai, a Scottish researcher who ignited the whole
controversy. Last summer he was quietly feeding potatoes to rats. Then he
went public with concerns about the genetically modified rations he was
using. On one hand, the researcher claims he's enthusiastic about
But he warns that it has to be done right because genetically modified
potatoes stunted the growth of rats and depressed their immune system.
Pusztai has not released his full results for review by other scientists
-- a traditional practice.
And when an internal audit committee evaluated his study, it disputed the
But 20 scientists, including one from Canada, have come forward since,
saying Pusztai may have a point.
Whatever the outcome, even biotech executives acknowledge the controversy
is likely to continue. ``I think we have to be very, very careful about
how these technologies are applied,'' says Richard Gill, senior
vice-president and general manger of BTG International Inc., a
tech-transfer company with offices in the US, Britain, and Japan. ``There
needs to be ... more information shared with people in a form that can be
Even in the United States, activists remain hopeful they can slow down the
technology. Dairy farmer associations and consumer groups, for example,
continue to battle the milk-boosting growth hormone. ``Americans are
expressing their concern with genetic engineering and agribusiness in
general, not in a political way but in the marketplace,'' says Ben
Lilliston of the Center for Food Safety. That's why organic products are
growing so rapidly, he says, and why some 200,000 citizens complained when
U.S. agricultural officials proposed including bio-engineered food as
organic. Concern is justified, scientists say, because no one can predict
how nature will react when new organisms appear. ``We're not talking
about killer tomatoes. We're talking about plants that will pick up
genes,'' says Norm Ellstrand, a geneticist at the University of California
Genes can only transfer to relatives. So genetically modified corn in Iowa
doesn't pose much danger because it has no wild relatives there. But
planted in central America, it could create super-weeds that could
out-compete the corn. And the risks increase as more of these genetically
modified plants get released into the wild and interact.
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign
for Mandatory labelling and long-term
testing of genetically engineered food
500 Wilbrod Street, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N2
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