Genetically Manipulated Food News

29 December 98

Table of Contents

Canada: Article Favouring BST Approval - and 2 replies
What Shakespeare had to say about Genetic Engineering
US Citizens group to seek five-year moratorium on 'mutant' food
EU: Ministers Debate EU-wide Moratorium on GM Crops.
EU: Biotech Rules Hit Genetically Modified Minefield.

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Date: Tue, 29 Dec 1998 21:37:55 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson BGH article

Here is a slanted Editorial from Canada's main national paper the Globe & Mail.

Following it is a response sent in by Robert Cohen, with the real facts, and a short reply by me. Anyone else who wants to send in a letter to the editor please do so. You can send it to:


Canada: Article Favouring BST Approval - and 2 replies

Gobe & Mail Article
Response by Dr. Robert Cohen
Response by Dr. Richard Wolfson

We'll get it when the cows come home- Why is it taking so long to approve the BST hormone?

Tuesday, December 22, 1998, Globe & Mail (Canada)

As we watch the federal government's health protection branch writhe over approving the use of a bovine growth hormone in dairy cattle, we cannot but think of that national characterization: as cautious as a Canadian.

The federal agency is now talking about approval for bovine somatropin -- a hormone that raises milk production in cows 10 to 15 per cent -- but only in three or four years. This for a substance that has already received a thumbs-up in the United States and roughly 25 other countries.

Undoubtedly the larger context for this dilly-dallying is the battering the health protection branch has been taking over everything from blood to breast implants to heart drugs. It almost looks as if it's saying: Damn it, we aren't going to be out-safetied on this one, no matter how safe BST really is.

Despite fears recently raised by six Health Canada scientists -- and we applaud their efforts in bringing their concerns forward -- we think they and Health Canada are now being too cautious even for Canadians. Here is our reasoning.

  1. BST is not thalidomide. This is a natural substance, which naturally appears in cow's bodies. Increases of it in milk have likely already been proven safe in humans because of an experiment milk drinkers have unconsciously been conducting on themselves all over the world.

    Over the last 40 years there has been a roughly sixfold increase in the milk production of the average cow. Some significant part of this extraordinary growth undoubtedly comes from selective breeding of more productive animals. These cows are likely naturally high

    producers of growth hormone. No problems have turned up from drinking their milk. There is strong evidence that we don't need more rat safety studies, because the human studies are already in.

  2. Most -- 80 to 90 per cent -- of the hormone is destroyed in pasteurization. Must of the rest is believed to be destroyed in digestion. Some small increase in an insulin growth factor has been noted, but it fits within the normal rises or falls noted in the human body. The increase is 0.1 per cent above what the body on average produces. There has been some linkage between insulin growth factor and cancers, but the biology of cancer suggests it is created by cancer growth, not responsible for it. And again, look at the increase: one-tenth of 1 per cent.

  3. There is nothing sinister about the fact that the hormone is produced by bioengineering. It is chemically the same hormone as exists in cows' bodies. All that is different is that the means of production have changed. Arguments over this intrusion of "biotechnology" into the farm remind us of debates at the end of the last century about whether "natural" ice -- e.g. frozen river and lake water -- was better or worse than "artificial" ice -- e.g. water frozen in a refrigerator. Ice is ice. Cow growth hormone is cow growth hormone.

  4. There is some suggestion that cows given injections of the hormone suffer more mastitis, an infection of their udders. The evidence is contradictory, as U.S. Food and Drug Administration studies indicate that seasonal increases in the incidence of mastitis are 9 times the increase attributed to the hormone rates which could be attributed to the growth hormone injections.

  5. Animals with mastitis are treated with antibiotics. Fears that this can increase antibiotic resistance in humans have been raised. But the milk cannot be sold until the residues of antibiotics have disappeared. Farmers testifying before a Senate committee investigating BST described in great detail the rigour of antibiotics testing and the economic axe that falls on the farmer who flouts it. And if BST cows get sick too often, trust us, the Canadian farmer will stop using it without a government ukase.

  6. Opponents of the introduction of BST hold up the bogeyman of Monsanto, the giant U.S. chemical maker who produces it. The scenario is something along the lines of "evil chemical company trying to destroy the purity of cow's milk." To fearmongers one would simply suggest they look at the virus of litigation companies try to avoid catching. We point with fear and trembling to Dow Corning's slide into bankruptcy protection over the still unproven role its breast implants have in causing illnesses. If they had an inkling there was a real danger to it, Monsanto would have to be the dumbest company this side of Bre-X to push for BST's approval.

Even this page -- in most matters, we're twice as cautious as the average Canadian -- believes the furor over BST is misplaced. Let's get on with the approval.


Response by Dr. Robert Cohen

Dear Editor,

I just got my copy, cold off the presses (one week late) of your editorial endorsing approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.

In your editorial you listed six conclusions, each of which is severly flawed. You stated that:

1) BST is a natural substance, which naturally appears in cow's bodies.


(2) Most -- 80 to 90 per cent -- of the hormone is destroyed in pasteurization.


(3) There is nothing sinister about the fact that the hormone is produced by bioengineering.


(4) There is some suggestion that cows given injections of the hormone suffer more mastitis, an infection of their udders. The evidence is contradictory.


(5) Animals with mastitis are treated with antibiotics. Milk containing unsafe levels of antibiotics would not be accepted by processors.


(6) Opponents of the introduction of BST hold up the bogeyman of Monsanto, the giant U.S. chemical maker who produces it.


Your editorial is poorly researched and betrays the health and safety of every Canadian.

Very truly yours,

Robert Cohen

Response by Dr. Richard Wolfson

I was shocked to read your December 22 editorial in support of the approval of BST, otherwise known as BGH or bovine growth hormone.

Facts recently uncovered showed the hormone was approved in the USA only because the research showing it caused very serious damage to animals was hidden. Cysts of the thyroid, inflammation of the prostate, elevated antibody levels were seen, and other damaging health effects were seen in animals givent this hormone.

Fortunately, scientists at Health Canada brought these facts to light, even though upper level management at Health Canada were bowing to industry pressure to get the hormone approved.

I urge you to report the full facts, and take a cautionary stance, which is to not support approval of this hormone as long as there are clear indications of safety risks and uncertainties.

Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign, Ottawa

Date: 21 Dec 1998 03:15:57 -0600
From: "Clive Elwell"

What Shakespeare had to say about Genetic Engineering

And Man,
Proud Man
Dressed in a little brief authority
Most ignorant of what he'd most assured
His glassy essence like some angry ape
Did play such tricks before high heaven
As made the angels weep

Date: 21 Dec 1998 13:32:42 -0600
From: (jim mcnulty)

The plot thickens in the US,here's to 'CLEAN MAINE' and a 'CLEAN US'. How about the other states in the Union? Jim Mc Nulty.

US Citizens group to seek five-year moratorium on 'mutant' food

Maine Times Nov 26, 1998
© Copyright Maine Times Nov 26, 1998

A citizens group announced this week it will seek a five-year moratorium on additional genetically-altered or engineered food in Maine. The campaign comes in the wake of Monsanto's cancellation of an appearance before the Board of Pesticide Control last week at which it planned to argue for use of a hybrid corn that contains an insecticide within the crop's chemical structure.

CLEAN: Maine, which is headed by Jonesboro activist Nancy Oden, said it will seek a rule-making decision from the pesticides board that would outlaw not only Monsanto's corn seed but any genetically altered food. The board now allows potatoes that have the insecticide Bt incorporated into their chemical makeup; tests on the efficiency and impacts of the genetically altered spuds are under way.

A petition requesting the ban must contain 1S0 signatures, which Oden said should be collected before the board's January meeting, at which the Monsanto corn proposal is expected to be presented. She said the petition may also call for action on the potatoes, which she said now account for 5 percent of all those raised in Maine.

The Monsanto corn seed contains the naturally occurring Bt as a foil to the European corn borer and two types of army worms, which are the major threats to both sweet corn and field corn grown in Maine.

Tests conducted last summer in Waldo and Penobscot counties by Extension Service professor Jim Dill showed the seed dramatically reduced damage from the insects. Though he was careful to say the experiments--two plots, each less than a half-acre in size--cannot yield scientifically valid results because they were carried out for just one year, the results are promising, he said.

Conventional corn plants suffered 50 to 60 percent damage to their foliage from the insects, while the genetically engineered plants had between 3 and 13 percent. Damage to ears of corn was between 26 and 53 percent for the conventional plants and 7 to 15 percent among the trial varieties, which were provided by DeKalb, a [ Monsanto ] subsidiary, and [ Novartis ] , a European chemical company.

Dill said the state Department of Agriculture asked him to conduct the trials. He said the chemical company seeds include Bt "in the cells of the plant. It's like spraying Bt on the plants" except the material is inside the ears, foliage and stalks, not the outside.

Dill said he understands Monsanto is interested only in selling seed for genetically altered feed corn in Maine, not sweet corn eaten by humans. Other companies may want to sell sweet corn seed, he said.

Oden's group, part of an international network of pure food activists, said, "Monsanto and a few other multinationals now control much of the world's food supply, and they have put pesticided, bio- engineered, mutant food on grocery shelves without our knowledge or consent." ******

(Copyright UMI Company 1998 All rights reserved.)

_____via IntellX_____

Date: 23 Dec 1998 03:15:53 -0600
From: (jim mcnulty)

forwarded from: (Beth Burrows) (by way of genetics

forwarded by
The Edmonds Institute

These arrived this morning from Dr. Beatrix Tappeser of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Germany. They had been sent to her by Dan Leskien of Friends of the Earth.

"If BSE has taught us anything, it is surely to be cautious about tampering with natural processes, however well intentioned, however plausibly the benefits are packaged." (The 1999 Good Restaurant Guide)

EU: Ministers Debate EU-wide Moratorium on GM Crops.

By Simon Coss, © 1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. 12/17/98

EU ENVIRONMENT ministers will consider the possibility of introducing a Union-wide moratorium on the sale of crops and seeds containing genetically modified organisms when they meet next week. Senior officials say the issue will be discussed at the request of Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard, amid increasing concern over the patchwork of national rules on GMOs being introduced as the clamour from environmental groups for action grows.

"The Commissioner has asked for it to be put on the agenda and if the Commissioner asks for it, it will happen," said Jim Currie, head of the European Commission's Directorate-General for the environment (DGXI). It remains unclear, however, whether the EU has the legal authority to introduce a ban even if it wants to. Many products have already been cleared for sale by the Union and, on the face of it, the Commission is duty bound to uphold all EU laws.

The biotechnology industry insists there are no grounds for introducing a moratorium because rules for approving genetically modified products are already in place. Any efforts to introduce one are therefore likely to face an industry-backed legal challenge in the European Court of Justice. But Currie argues that if member states really want to call 'time out' on the approval and marketing of GM crops, they will find a way to do so. He points out that all EU governments are acutely aware of public concerns about food safety in the wake of the 'mad cow' crisis and believes they are more likely to err on the side of extreme caution today than they would have been three years ago.

"To some extent the GMO affair suffers from a backlash and a knock-on effect from the BSE affair," he said. "At the end of the day, the key question is a political one." Bjerregaard's request for the issue to be discussed at next Monday's (21 December) meeting of environment ministers was sparked by a letter from European Parliament's environment committee chairman, UK Socialist MEP Ken Collins, to Commission President Jacques Santer calling for a moratorium. Collins argues that the Union should introduce a temporary ban on the marketing of GM products until agreement has been reached on updating the 1990 EU directive (90/220) which sets out the rules for approving gene-altered plant varieties.

Supporters of a ban claim their case has been further strengthened by last week's decision by France's highest constitutional court, the Conseil d'Etat, to ask the ECJ to rule on whether the French government followed proper procedures earlier this year when it authorised the sale of three strains of GM maize produced by Swiss biotechnology firm Novartis. All three had already been cleared for EU-wide sale by the Council of Ministers, but in September the Conseil D'Etat withdrew the authorisation while it considered the case.

Announcing its decision last week, the court said the ban would remain in place until the ECJ delivered its ruling on the case. Most experts expect this to take at least a year. Greenpeace France, the environmental group which brought the original complaint against the approval of the Novartis maize, said the decision demonstrated the validity of its argument. "This will really take the debate over who is competent to approve GMO products to the European level," said Greenpeace France director Bruno Rebelle. Novartis said the forthcoming ECJ case would examine whether member states or the EU institutions had ultimate authority to approve the sale of GMOs. "This is a purely legal argument which has nothing to do with our products or the quality of our safety assessments," said Willy de Greff, head of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds.

(c)1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. EUROPEAN VOICE 17/12/1998

Date: 23 Dec 1998 03:15:53 -0600
From: (jim mcnulty)

EU: Biotech Rules Hit Genetically Modified Minefield.

By Simon Coss, © 1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. 12/17/98

Anyone who still does not know that the initials GMO stand for 'genetically modified organism' must have spent most of last year stranded on that rock in the middle of the Aegean sea that the Greeks and the Turks are always getting so worked up about. This was the year when the debate over just what goes into the food Europeans eat reached fever pitch.

In the rarefied atmosphere of the Union's big three legislative institutions - the European Commission, Council of Ministers and European Parliament - the main arguments centred around plans put forward by Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard to update the 1990 EU directive (90/220) which sets out the rules for approving new strains of genetically modified crops and seeds. That debate is far from over, with spectacular fireworks likely to erupt early next year as the Council and Parliament argue over exactly what rules should emerge from the current talks.

While everyone seems to agree that 90/220 in its present form is cumbersome, ineffective and leaves too much decision-making power in the hands of democratically unaccountable committees, opinions are divided on what changes need to be made. EU governments are finding it hard to agree among themselves on how to strike the right balance between reassuring consumers by drafting tough monitoring rules and ensuring the Union's emerging biotechnology industry is not strangled at birth by red tape.

The Parliament's environment committee on the other hand has decided to cast itself in the role of the consumers' champion and is urging fellow MEPs to support a set of tough amendments to Bjerregaard's plans which the Council is likely to find hard to swallow. But the issue of GM produce also erupted at grass roots level this year, with many local and national environmental groups forcing governments to reassess the question of just how desirable the new crop varieties are.

The arguments against GM produce are many and detailed, but they all boil down to the same basic concern: that too little is known about the long-term effects of cultivating and consuming gene-altered crops on the environment and human health.

European consumer organisation BEUC has argued strongly throughout the year that shoppers should have the right to choose whether to buy GM produce or not. It claims the Union's current rules for labelling foods that contain GMOs are unclear and misleading, and argues that the practice of importing 'mixed' shipments of soya beans - which contain both GM as well as non-GM varieties means that, when it comes to processed foods, there are often no real alternatives to products which could or do contain GMOs. Soya derivatives are used in much industrial food production.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace go further, arguing that GM-crops should not be produced in the EU at all. Such arguments - and the considerable public support they appear to have won - are the reason why Luxembourg and Austria have still not been dragged in front of the European Court of Justice for the unilateral bans both countries have imposed on the cultivation and sale of GMO crops, including varieties which have been cleared under 90/220 for EU-wide sale.

EU governments have had several opportunities over the past 12 months to censure their Union partners for this obvious breach of single market rules, but have steadfastly refused to do so. Indeed, far from chastising the two 'renegade' member states, recent developments in several EU countries suggest that more Union governments are beginning to share the wary attitudes of Austrians and Luxembourgers.

Over the summer France announced plans to introduce an embargo on the cultivation of GMO oilseed rape to allow scientists to gather more data on the long-term effects of the crop on the environment. Greece has a similar embargo in place and the UK has also said it intends to introduce restrictions on the production of GM food.

This year also saw EU scientists refuse, for the first time, to clear a GM product (a gene-altered potato) for cultivation and marketing. As the Union enters 1999, the heated GMO debate can only get hotter.

(c)1998 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. EUROPEAN VOICE 17/12/1998

Date: 24 Dec 1998 02:32:06 -0600
From: (Bob Phelps)

Permission granted to transmit electronically, in this form only, for educational purposes.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
December 12 1998 under the headline


Author : Ben Hills
© Copyright Sydney Morning Herald and Ben Hills

Not to be altered in any way or reproduced for any other purpose, or for commercial gain.


WHEN they asked Peter Corish to be a guinea pig for Australia's first genetically engineered crop, he jumped at the chance. "In the glasshouse it worked brilliantly," says the cotton farmer from Goondiwindi on the NSW-Queensland border. "We thought it would be the answer to a lot of our problems."

The cotton farmer's biggest bugbear is a caterpillar called helicoverpa, the larva of a moth which, left to its own devices, can munch its way through an entire crop. The traditional solution has been a highly toxic pesticide, sprayed from the air up to a dozen times during the growing season, with serious consequences for the environment, and claims of "cancer clusters" among nearby farming communities.

But six years ago a new species of cotton that was claimed to be immune to the helicoverpa caterpillar, and any other pest, came out of the laboratory and into Australia's paddocks. It had been developed jointly by the CSIRO and Monsanto, the giant US corporation.

Using what scientists call biolistics, a "gene gun" that fires microscopic gold or tungsten cannonballs coated with genetic material into living cells, they had managed to create a cotton plant that manufactures bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a micro-organism deadly to insects which occurs naturally in the soil and is one of the very few pesticides even organic farmers are allowed to use.

It is harmless to humans. But, in theory at least, if a helicoverpa caterpillar bites a chunk out of a leaf of this new cotton variety, it will curl up and drop dead. No more spraying, a cleaner environment, bigger profits for the farmers, a more competitive export industry for Australia, it sounded too good to be true.

And it was. In 1996 the Federal Government approved the commercial release of the patented Ingard cotton, as it is called, the first and so far the only genetically modified (GM) crop grown in Australia. Corish, the chairman of Cotton Australia, the organisation that represents the 1,500 growers, watched eagerly for the results.

Like the curate's egg, they were good in parts. Growers were able to reduce their use of pesticides by up to 65per cent. But yields were also down that first season, and Monsanto exploited its monopoly position, charging farmers $245 a hectare for a licence to grow Ingard, almost double what it charged US farmers. By the time the growers did their accounts, many complained that they had lost money with the new miracle pest-proof cotton.

This year, the third season, only about 16per cent of the 500,000 hectares under cotton in Queensland and NSW have been sown to Ingard. This is partly because of the innate conservatism of farmers, and partly the caution of the Federal Government, which has imposed a ceiling of 20per cent until it better understands the consequences of letting loose a transgenic organism into the fragile Australian environment, which most would feel has already suffered enough havoc from exotic species, introduced, admittedly, with the best of intentions.

But this huge experiment is not just a debate about a new crop, farmers' incomes or even biological pollution, important as they may be. It is a debate that touches all of us in the most intimate and fundamental way, it's about who decides what we eat, about the safety and the security of our food supply.

For two years now, oil crushed from the seeds of that transgenic cotton has been sold for human consumption, and the residue fed to livestock. The oil is used in fish-and-chip shops, and is blended to make products ranging from margarine to mayonnaise and cake-mix. And this is just the beginning.

That oil is just one of a number of transgenic foods, from beer to cheese to baby food, which, with no announcement, no approval from any government organisation, no mandatory health or safety checks, and no labelling, have been quietly infiltrating Australia's supermarkets. One food industry guru estimates that up to 60per cent of the bottles, tins and packages on the shelves may already contain genetically engineered food, and that most of us will already have unknowingly eaten some.

On one side of the debate are the vested interests of the global agri/food industry, which stands to make billions of dollars from its investment in the new technology. They argue powerfully that the new crops represent a second "green revolution", essential if we are to feed the billions of extra mouths arriving on the planet in coming decades; that the products are safe; and that by increasing yields and eliminating the need for weed- and insect-killing poisons they promise a cleaner, greener planet.

Ranged against them is a noisy coalition of environmental, consumer, health and religious groups who mistrust the speed and secrecy with which the new foods have been foisted on us, who are concerned about their possible dangers to consumers, and who fear they may spawn "Frankenstein" plants and insects, with catastrophic consequences for the environment.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and a committed "greenie" who converses with his vegetables, spoke for them with religious fervour earlier this year when he said: "Do we have the right to experiment with and commercialise the building blocks of life? I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic manipulation, nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests."

The extraordinary thing is that, unlike in Europe, where consumer activists have blockaded ports, stormed the headquarters of food companies and attacked genetically engineered crops in the field, Australians have barely begun to discuss the most fundamental change to our diet since European settlement. A GLANCE at the Internet Web page of the Australian Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, 20 scientists appointed by the Government to decide which of these GM crops is safe to grow, and under what conditions, gives an idea of the range of new plants scientists are working on that may eventually finish up on our dinner plates.

Among 110 ongoing experiments are potatoes that don't go brown when you knock them about, and which have an increased starch content so they don't absorb as much oil when they are fried. Canola and sugar cane are being developed with a built-in resistance to bugs and herbicides, and super-nutritious lupins have been "injected" with a sunflower gene that is supposed to make sheep grow more wool when they eat them.

In Queensland Dr Jose Botella, in conjunction with Golden Circle Ltd, is working on a gene he hopes will make whole fields of pineapples all ripen at once so they can be harvested more cheaply. Other Australian scientists, supported by tens of millions of dollars' worth of government grants and tax subsidies, are trying to engineer wheat that makes better noodles, citrus with no seeds, peas that kill weevils.

Dr Thomas "TJ" Higgins, the scientist who heads the CSIRO's "gene team", says there is a potential for the new plants to save Australian agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But he acknowledges he is disappointed that only one of the new plants (the Ingard cotton) that has come out of his laboratory at the foot of Canberra's Black Mountain in the past 10 years has yet been commercially grown, and says Australia "has been fairly slow to take up the new technology".

The reason? Political opposition (Labor went to the last Federal election promising strict labelling for all GM food) and growing concerns about the safety of the new technology among health, environment and consumer groups, which take their cue from Europe.

There, in a series of highly publicised incidents, Greenpeace activists blocked the entry into port of three cargo ships carrying American GM soya beans, destroyed crops and unrolled a large banner from the roof of Nestle's headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, proclaiming, "Gene Food Force-Fed by Nestle". The British, in particular, have had their faith in official reassurances shaken by the lies they were told about the scientific "impossibility" of "mad cow disease" being transmitted from beef to humans, more than a dozen people are now confirmed dead from it.

The crusade has resulted in the European Union promulgating labelling laws for genetically engineered foodstuffs, which the industry says are unworkably tough, and has led to a number of bans by high-profile companies. Unilever, Nestle and the chocolate company Kraft Jacobs Suchard have all said they will not use GM products.

Some supermarkets in Denmark, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have also banned genetically engineered food. In Britain, Malcolm Walker, boss of the Iceland chain, which has 750 stores, declared: "I'm not frightened to say this isn't right and we won't do it. There is no practical reason why we should be genetically modifying anything. Genetics is incredibly inexact. We are playing with fire [and] I think it's horrendous."

Not so in the United States, which pioneered genetic engineering, and where 48 different food products have already been approved and hundreds more are on the drawing boards. Almost all, however, like the Ingard cotton, offer advantages to the seed corporation, the farmer, the distributor and the retailer, but nothing to the consumer.

Americans are already able to eat sterile radicchio, borer-resistant popcorn, virus-resistant pawpaw, potatoes deadly to their main pest, the Colorado beetle, and six new varieties of tomato genetically altered to "enhance fresh market value", whatever that might mean.

But Mitchell Hooke, executive director of the Australian Food Council, which represents the country's main food manufacturers, proselytises about the next generation of designer fruit and vegetables: strawberries containing increased levels of ellagic acid, a "natural cancer- fighting agent"; garlic with more allicin, said to reduce cholesterol levels; fruit with extra vitamins C and E; and canola and soya bean oil with more stearate, to produce healthier margarine.

Growing in laboratories are even more weird and wonderful creations. The Swedes have spliced a gene from a mustard plant into an aspen tree to make it grow faster; the Americans are trying to engineer vaccines into bananas which would immunise the consumer against tropical diseases; the Chinese have "crossed" a flounder with a sugar beet to make it more resistant to cold; mouse genes have been spliced into tobacco, and a chicken gene into potatoes. Human genes have been added to salmon, trout and rice, playing on our darkest dreads.

The first transgenic animals, 21 varieties of fish from abalone to shrimp and rainbow trout, are already being bred in the US, including a supersalmon which has a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon spliced into it. So concerned is British Columbia about the unguessable consequences of these fish escaping into the wild that it has banned their farming in sea pens.

In Adelaide, the small research company BresaGen provided a glimpse two years ago of what may be the future when it spliced human genetic material into a pig to try to produce an animal with less fat and more meat. Amid huge controversy about overtones of cannibalism, the company was forced to abandon the experiment, write off $12million in Commonwealth subsidies and tax-deducted investment, and destroy the pigs.

"It was a huge frustration, and in the end we opted out," says the company's managing director, Dr John Smeaton. "We could never get a definitive answer out of the various regulatory authorities [on whether the "new pork' could be sold for human consumption] and a few noisy people stirred it up as an emotional issue." HARD evidence about the effects on human health of eating these revolutionary new foods is hard to come by, particularly since, unlike a drug, there is no obligation anywhere to test their safety on humans, and in some cases there are not even any animal trials. "Obviously, if a whole load of bunnies die, it's not OK for humans," said an Australian food industry spokeswoman.

One concern is that antibiotic-resistant "marker genes" used in the genetic engineering process may somehow transfer into the human body. Hooke dismisses this as "about as likely as a supernova hitting the earth".

Another fear, for which there is already some scientific support, is the risk of transferring an alien allergen into a previously safe foodstuff. The US Union of Concerned Scientists, a prestigious group that includes a number of Nobel laureates, cites a study in which seven out of nine volunteers showed allergic reactions to a soya bean that had been "crossed" with a brazil nut.

The most serious case of genetic engineering gone wrong reliably documented in medical literature involves, paradoxically, a health-food supplement called L-tryptophan, a "naturally occurring" amino acid, which was promoted in the 1980s as a treatment for insomnia and depression. In 1989 health authorities in Australia and around the world warned people to stop taking it after it was linked to the deaths of 36 people and the crippling of another 1,500 by a completely new blood disease called EMS.

Investigators discovered that the cases were caused by contaminants in one particular batch of L-tryptophan which had been manufactured in Japan by the Showa Denko corporation using a newly modified strain of genetically engineered bacteria. The epidemic stopped when the product was taken off the market, and the inevitable lawsuits ensued.

Evidence of the potential for the new genetically engineered plants to damage the delicately balanced biosphere on which we depend is even more convincing. Attempts to "improve" the soil with GM bacteria have backfired on several occasions, most catastrophically when a bacterium designed with the highly desirable quality of "eating" residues of the toxic weedicide 2,4-D produced a by-product that killed all the essential natural bacteria in the soil.

Most of the genetic modifications approved so far involve "inoculating" food plants with alien genes to make them either immune to insect attack, or impervious to herbicides which would normally kill them. The danger here is that new breeds of poison-resistant insects will emerge, and that the plants will cross-pollinate with native species to produce unkillable "superweeds".

In Australia this would be particularly serious because we are among the world's heaviest users of agricultural chemicals. The use of glyphosate (a predict developed by Monsanto that it sells here as Roundup) has been widely promoted as an "environmentally friendly" alternative to ploughing because it kills weeds without the loss of topsoil to erosion.

Few were surprised when, on a farm near Echuca in Victoria two years ago, Professor Jim Pratley, an agronomist at Charles Sturt University, identified the world's first glyphosate- resistant weed, a type of rye-grass that is a serious pest to farmers.

Though Pratley denies that this was a "superweed", the precautions to eradicate it were like a scene from Outbreak. Monsanto and the NSW Agriculture Department flew experts in, the paddock was cordoned off for three or four hectares around the patch of mutant grass, the barley that was harvested nearby was not allowed off the property for fear it might be contaminated with seeds of the rye-grass, the paddock was ploughed and the weed eliminated, for now.

To guard against the emergence of Bt-tolerant "superbugs", cotton farmers must set aside an area of "normal" crops to provide a refuge for insects, and constantly collect eggs and larvae for laboratory study.

Although none has been detected yet, there is worrying evidence of another, unexpected, environmental hazard: genetically engineered crops may be killing off the beneficial insects that are nature's way of controlling pests. A study in Scotland found that the lifespan of ladybirds, nature's best natural control of aphids, was cut in half, and they laid fewer eggs, when they ate aphids which fed on genetically engineered potatoes.

It is bizarre in the extreme, say its critics, that something we are told is safe to eat, oil from the seeds of Ingard cotton, is not approved by any government agency as a foodstuff, but the plant is registered by the National Registration Authority for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals as a pesticide. Bon appetit. THERE is one final concern about the new technology that has united farmers and green groups, and that is the fear that powerful multinational corporations, most of them based in the US, may come to control the food supply by patenting the fruits, vegetables and even animals that mankind has freely used for thousands of years.

Since 1985, when US courts ruled that genetic material could be patented, these corporations have been prospecting the world for plants and animals they can "improve". This has been described by critics such as Greenpeace as a modern-day colonial land grab, with the target not the soil but the seeds that are the common heritage of mankind.

The agri/food industry has mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote what it sees as the benefits of this new technology, particularly to the developing world. Monsanto's publicity kit features grateful African farmers with bigger bunches of bananas, and growers in Thailand beaming over virus-free pawpaws.

Suman Sahai, the New Delhi convener of Gene Campaign, an industry-supported lobby, dismisses ethical concerns over genetic engineering as a luxury only industrialised countries can afford, and asks which would be more unethical, interfering with "God's work" or allowing the hungry to die.

Mitchell Hooke declares that the world will need to increase its food supply 75per cent by 2025 if it is to feed an expected increase in population from 6billion to more than 8billion. He says that encouraging higher-yielding, pest- and disease-resistant crops is the most important thing governments can do to protect the environment.

Carol Renouf, a policy officer at the 160,000-member Australian Consumers' Association who has spent two years studying the issue, believes, however, that what is at stake is really control of the global food supply: "Five or six multi nationals have invested billions in this technology over the past 15 or 20 years and are pushing it for all it's worth ... governments everywhere have been caught on the back foot."

Monsanto, now the world-dominating Microsoft of genetic engineering, is a good case in point. Last year it completed its transition from chemical company to "life sciences corporation", having invested more than $US2billion ($3.2billion) in genetic engineering, and having taken over six other bio-tech companies in a breathless expansion that took its market capitalisation from $US6billion to $US35billion in five years.

With US patent rights to its blockbuster weedkiller glyphosate, one of the biggest sellers in the world's $US8billion-a-year market for agricultural chemicals, running out in 2000, it faced financial disaster. Its new business is seeds, altering and patenting the genetic code to the foodstuffs that have sustained mankind since agriculture began on the plains of the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago.

This worries horticulturalists such as Clive Blazey, who runs the Diggers' Club seed business from a property on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. The club has 35,000 members, all committed to preserving biodiversity, conserving heritage varieties, and propagating "open pollinated" plants whose seed can be saved and grown.

Blazey is particularly concerned by Monsanto's recent acquisition of technology that will enable it to insert a "terminator gene" into plants, rendering their seeds sterile.

"This new technology gives Monsanto, with support from the US Government, its best chance of dominance of world agriculture," he thundered in a recent newsletter. "For Third World farmers it could be a new form of slavery ... for biodiversity it could be like the Holocaust. Instead of thousands of varieties of locally adapted rice or wheat being planted worldwide, mass marketing would reduce the strains to a few only." ALTHOUGH GM food products have been on supermarket shelves in Australia for two years, the first six to be formally vetted for sale are not expected to be approved until later this month, 15 years after a country such as Canada introduced regulations. An organisation called the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority, a body of scientists and bureaucrats with three food industry figures on its board, will decide what is safe for us to eat.

All six crops are owned by Monsanto, varieties of cotton and corn which carry the Bt gene, and soya beans, corn, canola and cotton which are immune to glyphosate. They will (retrospectively) be allowed to be imported and sold, but none, under rules expected to be endorsed by State and national health ministers meeting in Canberra next week, will be required to carry a label identifying them as genetically altered.

The ANZFA's program manager for food products, Dr Simon Brooke-Taylor, concedes: "We sat on the fence or crossed our legs for a while." Critics such as Carol Renouf believe that the food industry, which opposes labelling, has been able to "capture" the regulator and dictate its own terms.

Mitchell Hooke dismisses moves for labelling as "a clever campaign that is trying to scare the shit out of people". He insists that there is no need to label products such as Monsanto's soya or corn because they are almost identical to the "natural" products, the esoteric doctrine of "substantial equivalence" that will be the basis of the Australian legislation that comes into force in May.

The real reason, however, seems to stem from a fear that consumers would distrust the new and unknown. The food industry is still smarting from its failure to persuade people that irradiation was a safe method of prolonging the shelf life of fresh food, consumer groups overseas forced governments to label such food, then refused to buy it.

Unless frantic last-minute lobbying efforts are successful, Renouf says, only 1 or 2per cent of the genetically engineered foodstuffs sold in Australia would have to be labelled. Soya beans, corn, oils and so on would be out, and the only foods required to be labelled would be "substantially different" products such as Monsanto's renowned flop, the Flavr Savr tomato, now back on the drawing board because consumers didn't like the price, or the taste.

And that is even though a Federal Government-commissioned poll in 1995 found that although 61per cent of Australians would be willing to try genetically modified food, 89per cent thought they had the right to know what they were eating, they wanted all such food to be labelled. IN the absence of any regulations, other than the blanket provisions of the various State health acts requiring food offered for sale to be wholesome, no-one, including the manufacturer, knows for sure the genetic status of any grocery item. Even Hooke admits that "we wouldn't have a bloody clue" which products on sale now already contain GM food, and he says that there is no scientific test that can distinguish between many products, such as vegetable oils.

GM soya beans, for instance, which this year accounted for about 30per cent of the North American crop, appear to have first entered Australia unannounced two years ago as raw ingredients for processing, and in manufactured products. Soya derivatives are used in an extraordinary range of edibles, from bread to biscuits, cake-mix to cheese, cooking oil to chocolate topping.

Even baby food. Earlier this year, Bob Phelps, convener of the Australian GeneEthics Network a an alliance of anti-genetic engineering groups under the wing of the Australian Conservation Foundation, tested infant formulas bought at random from a suburban supermarket in Melbourne. Of the eight analysed, two were found to contain Monsanto's genetically modified soya beans.

The reaction from Heinz, one of the two manufacturers, was mildly schizophrenic. On the one hand, insists the company's spokesman, Glenda Orland: "We stand by the product. It is absolutely safe, otherwise we would not be feeding it to babies."

But on the other hand, the company has announced that, in Australia and in Europe, but not in the US, where consumers appear to be less concerned, it will no longer use GM food in any of its products. Heinz did not want to offer consumers a choice through labelling, Orland said, because "the fear is that if Mrs Jones from Blackburn reads that it is genetically modified, she will just freak out and won't buy the product any more."

Other GM foods already on sale here, unannounced, include cottonseed-oil products, beer and bread (which may be made with engineered enzymes) and cheese. Choice magazine analysed 20 supermarket brands of "cheddar" cheese two years ago and found that five had been made with genetically engineered rennet, a coagulating agent traditionally extracted from calves' stomachs.

Unlike Heinz, Sanitarium, which is proud of its reputation as a "health food company", says it is impossible to sort out the "gene beans" it imports from the US from the old-fashioned kind, so its products may or may not contain any.

And to add to the confusion, some manufacturers say that they won't touch genetically engineered food with a barge pole. Gil Hassin, managing director of the Australian Natural Foods company, which has a $16million-a-year turnover, is one. Hassin believed his customers were so concerned that he became the first manufacturer to use a "GM-free" label on a product a his top-of-the-line So Natural brand of soya milk, which has become the fastest-growing in the country.

"There is absolutely no benefit nutritionally [in GM beans] and we are not satisfied it has been properly tested on humans. We are being used as guinea pigs," he says. "Look at Thalidomide, they didn't know about its dangers until they saw the second and third generation [of birth deformities]." CONSUMERS who don't swallow the industry's assurances that GM food is safe have two options. They can shop in "health food" stores, or buy produce that has been certified as "organic" or "biodynamic" under the rules of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

So far, Australia's supermarkets are lining up behind the food manufacturers and insisting there is no need for labelling. This is unlike in Europe, where some chains have banned GM food and others insist on labelling, the famously consumer-conscious British chain Sainsburys, for instance, labelled its "own brand" tomato paste and found to its surprise that its customers actually preferred the genetically engineered paste to the real thing.

The arguments of the Australian food industry against giving consumers this sort of choice will be familiar to those who remember its opposition to the introduction of date-stamping, listing ingredients on labels, or any other consumer safeguard: you can trust us to make sure your food is safe, labelling would just mislead the consumer, it would be impossible to police, some packages would not have enough room for the extra wording. Seriously.

None of this persuades Australia's booming health-food retailers, some of them large chains, which are estimated to control 5per cent of the national food market. All said they had banned genetically modified food from their shelves. Paul Bryden, technical manager of the Nutritional Foods Association of Australia, went one further, his members, he said, would not even stock shampoo and conditioner made with lecithin extracted from "gene beans".

As far as fresh food is concerned, if it's labelled "organic" it can't be grown from genetically modified seed, and that's the law. While one government agency (the ANZFA) is insisting that there is really no difference between GM and non-GM food, another (the AQIS) is telling growers and retailers there really is.

Judith Moore is executive officer of Biological Farmers of Australia, the country's largest certification agency, which guarantees the produce of many of the 2,000 growers in the organic food industry. She said: "The view worldwide is that food should be organic and natural, and genetically manipulated product can never be considered that."

She said that if growers did not abide by the six-year-old AQIS ban, it would endanger a small but rapidly growing export industry in organic produce such as fresh fruit and vegetables for Singapore, orange juice, and bulk grains grown without the use of agricultural chemicals.

Nor are Sydney's grands chefs planning to experiment with gene cuisine. Christine Manfield, of the highly regarded Paramount restaurant in Potts Point, reflected the views of many when she said: "We try to use organic produce wherever we can. We pay a premium to get away from all those nasty elements which have insidiously snuck into the food chain, whether it's genetic engineering or those horrible battery chickens full of hormones and antibiotics."

So where does this leave growers such as Peter Corish? He says Monsanto has dropped its price a bit and he will persevere with his pioneering cotton, though with a bit less enthusiasm.

"Our expectations were too high," he grumbles. "We thought we were getting a Rolls-Royce, but it turned out to be a Holden."

Ben Hills can be contacted at


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Bob Phelps, Director
Australian GeneEthics Network
c/- ACF 340 Gore Street, Fitzroy. 3065 Australia
Tel: (03) 9416.2222 Fax: (03) 9416.0767 {Int Code (613)}
email: WWW:

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