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From: MichaelP <>
Subject: More Observer on genetically manipulated food
Date: 15 Feb 1999 18:17:59 GMT

  1. London Observer Comment
  2. Shops warning ordered on gene food
  3. Miracle Foods That The Public Won't Swallow

Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

`The right of consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM food should be respected'

Observer Comment

The furore over genetically modified food during the past week has generated heat and no light. But it seems clear there are dangers to the environment and possibly to individual health. Multinationals based in the United States - notably Monsanto - have been too quick to press the advantages of GM food given the level of knowledge and the suspicions of consumers. The US government has put American farming profits before public health in a vast, uncontrolled global experiment.

On the other hand GM food products could be a great boon. Genetic modification could raise the nutritional content of food, offer better insect resistance for some crops and some, too, can be modified to last longer after harvesting. The question is whether these advantages are offset by the risks. The onus is on those who want to sell GM food to prove it is safe, not the other way around. Requiring that GM food should be labelled - which the Government is expecting to announce next week - is the least it could do, given the degree of public concern. Some scientists may regard that response as excessive and whipped up by hysterical reporting, but the right of consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM food should be respected.

Even this concession will be contested by the Americans, in part because they mix up GM and non-GM food for export so that disentangling GM food for labelling now is next to impossible.

The British Government must be resolute. The US has brought this upon itself by trying to impose its own standards on the rest of the world. Within the European Union there is no commercial production of GM food, and the US should be reminded that British food buyers always have the option of buying European products if American companies do not comply with British law. The time has come to be tough, and until genetic modification is proved safe, to respect the anxieties of consumers in Britain.

Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

Shops warning ordered on gene food
By Patrick Wintour, Antony Barnett and Robin McKie

Mandatory labelling of all genetically modified food sold in shops, takeaways and restaurants is to be introduced next month in an attempt to quell growing fear of the `Frankenstein foods'. Firms breaking regulations -- to be policed by local authorities and government scientists -- will face tough fines. `We are going to be ruthless in enforcing this,' Food Minister Jeff Rooker told The Observer yesterday.

But attempts to clean up the reputation of genetically modified (GM) foods are likely to be undermined this week. Monsanto, the American firm spearheading their production, is to admit illegally releasing modified oil-seed rape into the environment. Campaigners fear such breaches could lead to the creation of `superweeds' resistant to herbicides.

They say the crop could pollinate nearby unmodified crops which might end up in human food without the public knowing. A Monsanto spokesman said it intended to plead guilty in a Lincolnshire court on Wednesday to breaking environmental law. The company faces a fine of up to #20,000. The case could not have come at worse moment for the GM food industry. Last week a furore erupted over a controversial, unpublished study which, it was claimed, links gene engineering practices to the development of immune system problems in rats. Government scientists were accused of suppressing the study, and the Government came under renewed pressure to introduce a moratorium on the commercial growing of gene crops. Supermarkets attacked Ministers for failing to create a system for labelling GM foods as fears of a consumer boycott intensified. Apart from mandatory labelling, the Cabinet Office -- under `enforcer' Jack Cunningham -- will launch an urgent Whitehall review of the biotechnology sector.

The review will be completed in three months and may lead to a new body to advise on the environmental implications of GM foods. Ministers are also to promote a list of 59 US and Canadian firms that produce unmodified soya and maize to help shoppers make informed choices about the food they buy. Rooker warned Monsanto and the other big GM firms that they were provoking a consumer backlash by mixing the production of GM and non-GM products. Ministers say they are determined not to bow to pressure from environmental groups and some newspapers, but they are worried that the unrest could undermine Britain's growing biotechnology industry. `The Government is not going to be forced into a complete volte-face because of this panic. We just have to get our message across.'

Monsanto's alleged breach of the existing controls arose last June at a Government-licensed trial site in Lincolnshire. A routine inspection revealed that control measures, required to prevent pollen from herbicide-resistant oil seed rape spreading to nearby crops, had been partly removed. As a result the entire site had to be destroyed, and any seeds harvested over the next two years within a 50-yard radius of the site will be destroyed.

`It was found that the pollen barrier surrounding the trial . . . was only two yards wide on the trial site, rather than the required six yards,' say minutes of the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. A Monsanto spokesman said: `We don't have direct control over these trials. A third party conducts them.'

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. **
Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

Miracle Foods That The Public Won't Swallow
Doubts about GM food are tainting our dinner tables with fear. Science Editor Robin McKie asks how a once tasty concept turned so sour?

It was supposed to be the food of tomorrow: a genetically engineered ambrosia to feed Earth's hordes next century. But it has turned into a political nightmare.

Last week unprecedentedly ferocious criticism fell upon the heads of those responsible for making genetically modified (GM) foods in Britain - an onslaught so fierce it is hard to see how their products can survive commercially.

Far from being nutritional saviours, GM foods now look like the pariahs of the European food industry.

But how did this PR calamity occur? How could such a wonder-food fail so spectacularly in the eyes of the public? The answers have much to do with misunderstanding the public's fear of science and failing to realise that consumers become suspicious and vulnerable to fear when they are starved of choice.

In particular, people worry that (GM) crops are dangerous to eat, that they threaten the environment, and that they will allow a few big pharmaceutical companies to monopolise agriculture.

In the first instance, there was little to upset consumers until the Pusztai affair erupted last year. Dr Arpad Pusztai, of Aberdeen's Rowett Research Institute, claimed that rats fed on GM food suffered immune problems.

An external investigation subsequently criticised his experimental procedures. He retired, and the matter seemed closed - until last week, when a group of scientists (none of whom, it must be said, were noted genetic engineers) signed a letter condemning Pusztai's employers for mistreating him.

They claimed that his studies revealed possible dangers in genetic engineering techniques. That is crucial. The group claims to have found a danger so far unrecognised.

Pusztai was working with lectins - a group of chemicals which include poisons found in some varieties of beans. He fed potatoes - some injected with lectins and some modified to make their own - to rats, and they suffered atrophy in various organs, including their livers.

The results caused a furore and the external inquiry was set up. Pusztai's results were blamed on the simple fact that he was working with lectins, which, it was argued, were the real cause of the atrophy.

But follow-up studies by one of Pusztai's colleagues, Dr Stanley Ewen of Aberdeen University, suggests that these reassurances are misplaced. More damage was done when the pototoes were modified than when they had simply been spiked with lectins: in other words, there was something in the process of genetic modification that was causing damage. `We think we were showing up something that nobody has spotted,' said Ewen.

Neither Pusztai's nor Ewen's research has been published or subjected to peer review. `This is the only study ever to claim there is something damaging about the business of genetic modification, but we cannot evaluate it because we cannot get access to their data,' said Professor Ray Baker, head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

That was because the Government has not asked for information, the group retorted. Regardless of who is right, the Aberdeen work was seized upon last week as a `food scandal': a lone voice trying to raise a matter of vital public concern was being silenced. In vain scientists tried to point out there was no scandal: no food for human consumption was involved.

`This was a safety trial,' said Dr Bernard Dixon of the European Biotechnology Forum. `We have them all the time. New antibiotics are constantly being found to have adverse effects, and as a result are never marketed. No one suggests the fundamentals of antibiotics manufacture is suspect, however.'

It was also claimed that Pusztai's work was the first to use GM food in feeding trials, and that scientists were failing to carry out basic safety tests: feeding GM food to rats to study the impact.

`But that is exactly what we do do,' said Professor Nigel Poole of Zeneca, the manufacturers of one of the few modified foods on sale in supermarkets.

When we created puree made out of genetically modified tomatoes, the first thing we did was to feed it to rats and then study the effects on their bodies. It is utterly untrue to say we don't do such studies. People are making up facts as they go along.'

Then there were the pictures of healthy rat stomachs and those damaged because of GM food. `Of course, they were damaged,' Poole said. `They had been eating lectins, which are poisonous. It's got nothing to do with genetic modification.'

Unfortunately, the British public - distrustful of official assurances after the mishandling of the BSE crisis - is in no mood to listen to scientific `reason'. Nor is the media. As far as most people are concerned, Pusztai has been vindicated, all GM products are `Frankenstein foods', and there should be a moratorium on the growing of gene crops - as demanded by the `20 international scientists' who have backed Pusztai.

In making this last claim, the group is, in a sense, wasting its breath. Given the hysteria unleashed, there is absolutely no chance that modified crops will be grown commercially in this country for many years - though some small, experimental trials have begun.

`There is only one application currently in the pipeline - from AgrEvo, which would like to grow oilseed rape that can resist the use of the herbicide glufosinate,' said Dr Phil Dale of the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

`It will take years before they satisfy the regulatory process and pass safety trials - if the company decides it is worthwhile proceeding, that is.'

This leads us to the public's second major fear: that GM crops fitted with genes to resist pesticides and herbicides will devastate our countryside. The insertion of such genes is supposed to benefit the environment by making it easier to control weeds.

`So far, all studies show modified crops need less chemicals than standard crops,' Dale said. But many people fear that pollen from these crops will drift and be picked up by nearby weeds, which will then become resistant to herbicides. Britain will be invaded by superweeds that will strangle our fields.

`People forget that only weeds of species that are botanically similar to a particular crop will pick up its pollen and form a hybrid,' said Dale, who was one of the Government's advisers on the release of GM organisms. `In the case of modified oilseed rape, the principal candidate for commercial planting in this country, there are no weeds with which it can hybridise in Britain.' Critics of GM foods are unabashed. They point to the fact that the industry refuses to release data from the trials of modified crops. The public wants reassurance, and is simply not getting it. And the Green movement - which has long disliked the intensive agricultural practices of modern farming - has seized on these fields of crops, genetically modified in some sinister way, as the battleground it has been lacking.

This takes us to the third great fear: that one or two GM companies are attempting to monopolise crop production. In the case of Monsanto, the world's biggest GM company, they have good grounds for concern. Much of the present crisis can be blamed on its persistence in exporting mixed consignments of modified and unmodified soya oil to Europe. Consumers could not tell the difference. Europe objected and was threatened with a trade war, and many GM foods appeared unmarked in supermarkets. Two years later, we are reaping the harvest.

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. **

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