Montréal,  8 - 21 janv. 2000
Numéro 53
  (page 6)
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          One of the interesting things about the internet is having the ability to read news from both sides of the Atlantic within a few minutes and to compare the two versions of the same event. No better example of this could be found than last October when the BBC and various European newspapers announced that Monsanto, the St. Louis based agribusiness, had given up its plans to introduce its so called « terminator » seeds, seeds which are genetically modified and designed to become sterile after one season. A survey of the US media that same day found almost no coverage whatsoever of this significant announcement. 
          Genetic modification or GM is part of the everyday language of Europeans but to most North Americans the initials GM may evoke General Motors or the abbreviation for the General Manager of some luckless sports team. The difference in awareness between the two continents is quite simply stupendous, although, finally, there are definite signs that the North American population is beginning to wake up to the potential of genetic modification.
Waking up in a house on fire 
          These differences between people on either side of the Atlantic Ocean are quite often startling. Protests by Americans have effectively contained any expansion of the nuclear power industry in the USA, whereas similar protests in Europe have been totally ineffective. Almost every household in Europe is aware of GM foods and two major supermarket chains in England, Marks & Spencers and Sainsbury’s have removed all products containing GM ingredients. The ubiquitous McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants have acted similarly and even the former Beatles Paul McCartney has announced that his line of frozen dinners would not contain any soy products made from Monsanto's « Roundup Ready » soybeans, a genetically modified plant immune to the eponymous herbicide. 
          Protesters in Europe have, in Luddite fashion, been destroying GM crops and generally waging a « direct action » campaign against research centres and plots of genetically engineered crops wherever they can find them. Travellers from Europe to the USA are warned not to consume GM foods, a virtual impossibility considering that a third of the corn crop and one half of the soybean crop in the USA is genetically modified. According to one Web site, even that venue much beloved of Europeans, Disneyland, is not free of these hated products. The European anti-GM movement is growing and its latest target is the forcing of retailers to remove cotton garments from their store clothes racks. Even the prestigious British medical magazine, The Lancet, published a much-criticised piece of research which claimed that genetically modified potatoes caused intestinal damage to rats in the laboratory. The Lancet did concede that although the researcher involved had been dismissed from his position and that his findings were not up to the required scientific standard they did feel that publication was required in the interest of the public. 
          It will be recalled that recently Europe has gone through the traumatic Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis or « Mad Cow disease » outbreak that almost destroyed the British beef industry and the Dioxin contamination scare in Belgium. Events which, though completely unrelated to genetic modification, have sent ominous chills through the hearts of most Europeans. 
 « In 1997, Canada's federal government seems to have allowed the sale of some GM Canola seeds which were “seriously contaminated”. It was the manufacturer who prompted a recall, not the government, but the incident received little or no publicity until quite recently. »
          Standard scientific testing has not yet confirmed the safety of all this bioengineering and so far seems to rest on the unfounded assumption that traditional breeding and genetic engineering are the same thing. Traditional breeding involves the complete transfer of genes between like species whereas bio-engineers isolate a gene from one species and splice it into the DNA of a dissimilar species. Then, because the transplanted gene is foreign to its new surroundings, it cannot function without an artificial boost. Because this unnatural boosting is continual, the transplanted gene acts independently of the host organism's complicated control system, unlike each native gene.  
          As Liebe Cavalieri, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York says, it is « simplistic, if not downright simple-minded » to claim that genetic engineering is the same as traditional breeding – and that doing so borders on a « sham ». Because of these differences, genetic engineering could involve risks, to the food supply and to the biosphere. There are three potential disruptions to the food supply. Firstly, because foreign genes enter the host DNA indiscriminately and disrupt the region into which they lodge, they can adversely alter cellular function. Secondly, the powerful boosters artificially attached to the foreign genes can induce an imbalance of the native genes. Lastly, the uncontrolled production of foreign proteins could disturb biochemical feedback loops. Each type of disruption may then generate toxins and carcinogens in unpredictable ways, and the testing currently performed does not, apparently, screen adequately for these potential problem.                                             
Transparency is needed 
          Bio-engineered crops can spread their traits to their wild relations. For example, because many of these bio-engineered crops are designed to tolerate high dosage rates of herbicides, cross-pollination with their relatives can create so-called « super-weeds » also possessing such resistance. The viruses engineered into plants can also combine with other viruses to create « super-viruses » – and new diseases that may prove dangerous. Plants engineered to produce their own pesticides can kill beneficial insects as well as pestiferous ones. Interestingly, the US Agriculture Department’s own data for 1997 and 1998 show that in most cases, bio-engineered crops require at least as much pesticide as do conventional ones. Such crops are being marketed in countries where pesticide use is low so one may now expect to see a worldwide increase in pesticide application. It is also reported that farmers who plant herbicide resistant soybean seem to use more herbicide than do conventional growers.  
          One might have thought that the US Federal Drug Administration, which often seems to spend an inordinate amount of time investigating drugs proven effective in other countries before approving them for use in the United States, would have displayed similar caution in the case of GM foods. The explanation seems to be that the Reagan administration, and the Clinton one, directed that the biotechnology industry be promoted vigorously. This policy has been followed, in spite of the strong and oft-repeated objections of many of the FDA’s own scientists who cautioned that genetically engineered food should undergo toxicological testing. These internal objections were unknown to the public until the Alliance for Bio-Integrity sued the FDA, a suit that obliged FDA bureaucrats to release a mass of memos written by those scientists, all highly critical of the policy  
          In 1997, Canada's federal government seems to have allowed the sale of some GM Canola seeds which were « seriously contaminated ». This resulted in the attempted recall of some 60 000 bags of seed, part of which had been planted. It was the manufacturer who prompted the recall, not the government, but the incident received little or no publicity until quite recently. Health Canada tested some of the contaminated seed and found that it did not pose a « significant » health risk.  
          In November of last year, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and its Minister of Public Works and Government Services opined that they were « encouraged (sic) that work has begun to develop a Canadian Standard for the voluntary labelling of foods derived from biotechnology ». In other words, the consumer will then be able to decide whether or not to consume GM foodstuffs, so labelled, as opposed to consuming them without knowing that they have been modified. The announcement did not deal with the safety of such products or the possibility of some hapless consumer developing some nasty disease in the future from ingesting such modified produce. 
          Our political masters would do better to convince us that, labelled or not, genetically modified, environmentally unsafe, products are not being unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Simple labelling alone is more likely to provide a way for the anti-GM activists to frighten people out of buying GM foods that may or may not be toxic. Food is of course an emotional topic and what is needed is a great deal more transparency on the part of all those concerned with the production of GM foods. If matters are left as they are we will never get to learn the truth, until perhaps it is too late. An analogy that springs to mind is the widespread use of DDT, which was a welcome innovation but which, much later, proved to have very undesirable side effects.  
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