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Synthesis/Regeneration 21   (Winter 2000)

The 1999 GE Food Debates: The Turning Point

by Roberto Verzola, Philippine Greens

The year 1999 marks what might be the turning point in the global fight against genetically-engineered (GE) food, as the issue began to grip media and public attention. Renewed debate flared in the British media in February 1999, when some 20 scientists from 13 countries issued a statement deploring the harsh treatment by Scotland's Rowett Research Institute of world-renowned British researcher and lectin expert Dr. Arpad Pusztai and demanding his reinstatement.

Pusztai had earlier begun a £1.6-million study which indicated that a GE potato diet weakened rats' immune systems and adversely affected the animals' internal organs. When he shared with the media (with his superior's permission) some of his concerns, Pusztai was promptly sacked from his research post. His papers were confiscated, he was prohibited from talking to the media, and his research team was closed down.

Pusztai Case Prods Anti-GE Backlash

The strong statement by the 20 scientists calling for a review of Pusztai's case launched a wave of investigative reports, bringing into the open many of the little-known unresolved questions about GE food safety. Surveys revealed increasing consumer aversion to GE food. Market response was swift. Reacting to clearly-expressed consumer preferences, one food processor and distributor after another announced that they were keeping their products and shelves GE-free.

...one food processor and distributor after another announced that they were keeping their products and shelves GE-free.

In May 1999, the British Medical Association (BMA), which counts some 80% or nearly 115,000 of Britain's medical doctors, issued an official statement expressing concern over the safety of GE foods. The BMA recommended a moratorium on planting commercial GE crops in the UK "until there is scientific consensus (or as close agreement as reasonably achievable) about the potential long-term environmental effects." The BMA also called for

  1. segregation at source, "to enable identification and traceability" of GE foods;
  2. labeling GE imports and banning unlabelled ones if the industry refuses to segregate; and
  3. more robust systems of disease surveillance, to deal with "potential emergence of new diseases associated with GM material which will be obscure and difficult to diagnose."

Also in May, Cornell University assistant professor John Losey and his colleagues announced a study, which showed that Bt corn pollen was deadly to monarch butterflies. Within days, the bad news made the headlines, bringing into the US public's attention the unresolved issues about GE food safety.

The monarch study launched another anti-GE wave. Europe banned the importation of Bt corn, and major US grain traders like Archer Daniels Midland announced they were only buying corn that Europe would accept. Baby food manufacturer Gerber promised not only to keep their products GE-free, but also to shift to organic ingredients. That says a lot, considering that Gerber is owned by Swiss giant and GE seed producer Novartis. Aside from the US and a handful of others, most countries have adopted or are now contemplating mandatory labeling for GE food. And an increasing number of firms are committing GE-free food products.

Problems with GE Food

In the past, the most common examples cited against GE food safety had been: (1) the L-tryphtophan case (where a toxic contaminant that was likely due to the GE bacteria used in producing the food supplement L-tryphtophan killed 37 and hospitalized 1,500); (2) the Brazil nut case (where soya inserted with a Brazil nut gene to raise its protein content also showed increased allergenic effects); and (3) the rBGH case (where the use of a GE growth hormone to stimulate milk production in cows resulted in udder inflammations, infections and other problems affecting milk quality).

The year 1999 presented a rich set of new data justifying health and safety concerns.

The year 1999 presented a rich set of new data justifying health and safety concerns. Some examples:

If safety studies are lacking and scientific consensus is absent, how did GE foods get approved so quickly? Industry used a tricky argument, which goes this way: Genetic engineering is basically the same as conventional breeding. Thus, GE foods are "substantially equivalent" to their conventional counterparts, and no special tests should be required. By testing to show "substantial equivalence," biotech firms convinced a sympathetic US FDA to approve commercialization, and avoided actual feeding tests.

Monsanto announced in October 1999 that it was dropping its Terminator seed program, confirming the effectiveness of the global campaign against the technology...

In September 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) convened an "expert" consultation on GE food safety in Rome, which adopted the same industry line that: (1) safety issues in GE foods were "basically of the same nature" as in foods from conventional breeding; (2) the substantial equivalence concept can be used to show GE food safety; and (3) once substantial equivalence is shown, "no further safety consideration is needed."

While the meeting's report included a disclaimer that the participants were invited "in their individual capacities and not as representative of any organization, affiliation or government," biotech firms keep referring to this 1996 report to falsely claim that the "WHO/FAO have declared that Bt corn [or some other GE product] is as safe as its conventional equivalent for animal and human consumption." Yet the WHO and the FAO themselves have no such official position.

Today, scientists themselves question substantial equivalence as "a commercial and political judgment masquerading as if it were scientific...primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests." (Letter to Nature by Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner & Sue Mayer, 10/7/99). The Codex Alimentarius, to which WHO and FAO defer on food safety issues, has not adopted the concept for its food safety assessments.

Turning Points in the GE Industry, Too?

A final indication that marks 1999 as the turning point was supplied not by activists or biotech critics but by the industry itself:

The monster is hurt; the challenge to GE food critics in the year 2000 and after is to find the jugular and go for it.

Roberto Verzola is the secretary-general of the Philippine Greens, a group of political activists building a Philippine mass movement based on the principles of ecology, social justice and self-determination.

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