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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (7 May1999)
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A No-Nonsense View on
Genetic Engineering

This is the speech that Sue Kedgley prepared for the Talking Technology Conference on Genetically Engineered Foods at Te Papa on 8 May 1999.

The Hazards of Genetically Engineered Food. Talk to the Talking Technology Conference, May 1999, by Sue Kedgley

First we need to remember that GE foods contain genetic material never been in human diet before. And therefore there is no history of safe use. They are made with an unproven technology which is still in its infancy, in a way which breaks all the biological rules of evolution, which tampers with the very basis of human existence, and which alters plants and animals in ways that could never happen in billions of years of natural evolution or breeding.

Inserting foreign genes into places which violate the species barrier is done in quite a crude and haphazard way. Thousands of different reactions are possible depending on where a gene ends up and which other genes it affects.

Because of the unpredictability of the new technology, and the way it disrupts the natural order, doctors are warning that crops with altered genes in them could lead to the creation of new and undetectable toxins and allergies, super viruses, super bugs, cancers and other illnesses.

British government scientists, members of the British government’s advisory committee on Novel Foods and Processes, are warning that antibiotic resistance genes from GE crops could jump species, get into the mouths and saliva of humans, transfer their resistance to disease causing bacteria and transform them into untreatable and potentially fatal new strains of meningitis and other diseases, which could rapidly become a problem world-wide.

Dr John Heritage, a microbiologist who is a member of the committee says "it’s a huge concern to me. While the risk is small, the consequences of an untreatable, life threatening infection spreading within the general population are enormous."

Other concerns centre of the viruses that are used to insert genes into food.

Professor Joe Cummings, a geneticist from Ontario University, believes the greatest threat from GE foods comes from the use of modified viruses and insect virus genes into food. In laboratory experiments it has been shown that genetic recombination will create highly virulent new viruses. He singles out the widely used cauliflower mosaic virus as a potentially dangerous gene, which is similar to hepatitis virus. Another distinguished geneticist, Mae Wan Ho, says the insertion of foreign genes into a host genome has long been known to have many harmful or fatal effects including cancer of the organism.

Other concerns are that new allergies could be created from genetic material which has never been in the human diet before.

Given the potential health risks of these foods, you would expect to see the precautionary principle applied to GE food, and extreme caution used in introducing them into marketplace.

Instead, these foods have been rushed into marketplace before any regulatory regime was in place, and despite the fact that consumers and most food retailers don’t want them.

No one is allowed to bring a new drug onto the market without intensive testing, even though only a small percentage of the population may use a drug. Yet our government has allowed hundreds of processed foods containing GE ingredients to enter our marketplace - without any labelling - even though everyone, not just a small percentage of population, is liable to eat them.. This situation means, essentially, that consumers, having no alternative, have been forced to eat food that has not even been assessed to ensure it is safe by our own regulatory regime.

3/ A regulatory regime governing the safety of GE foods was finally to have come into place on May 13. But the government has now delayed the introduction of this regime by 14 months. This delay will allow more than 20 GE staple ingredients to remain in our food supply ( in an estimated 500 processed foods) despite the fact that these ingredients have not been assessed for their safety by our own regulatory regime (and are coming in unlabeled). So consumers will be forced to eat food not assessed for their safety because we will have no choice.

4/ The regulatory regime which will finally come into place next year (3-4 years too late) is not nearly as strict as the regulatory regime for assessing the safety of pharmaceuticals, pesticides or even food additives.

In first place, ANZFA does not undertake any independent testing of GE products. All it does is review data provided by an applicant which of course has a substantial vested interest in getting its product onto the market. Yet biotechnology companies (who hold the patents to GE crops) refuse to accept responsibility for the safety of their products. Monsanto’s Corporate Communications Director, Phil Angall, said in an interview in the New York Times Magazine "Monsanto should not have to vouch safe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job." But FDA (and ANZFA) base their assurances of safety on reading Monsanto’s data.

Second major problem is that the testing that is done by the applicant is extremely limited and inadequate.

If a GE product is judged to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to an existing food (after comparisons have been made of nutritional and compositional data) it is assumed to be as safe as its traditional counterpart, and essentially, no safety testing is required.

Doctors like Dr Bernard Conlon say it is scientific hypocrisy to break the genetic barrier, insert new genetic material, and then say it is natural and the same as natural food. But that is the justification for the totally inadequate testing regimes of most GE food.

Third major problem is that despite the warnings of various scientists and doctors that foods with altered genes could create new and undetectable toxins and allergens, super viruses and resistant infections or could even cause cancer and birth defects in the long term, no long-term testing has yet been undertaken on GE foods to assess whether they could cause cancer, immune system damage etc. The only animal testing that is carried out are short-term, 28 day’toxicity’ studies. In the case of Ingard cotton, for example (recently approved by ANZFA) the applicant had carried out 28 day tests on 10 male and 10 female rats. On the basis of these tests, Ingard cotton has been declared safe for all humans for all time.

Despite the fact that GE food contains genetic material which has never been in the human diet before, (genes taken from bacteria and other life forms whose allergenicity is entirely unknown only foods which contain genetic material from a KNOWN allergen are tested for potential allergens. There is no allergenicity testing on the remaining GE food.

In England, Britain’s most senior doctor has asked Ministers to set up a special panel a GM health monitoring unit, similar to the body of experts who discovered the link between eating beef and BSE, to examine whether eating ge foods could cause birth defects, cancer or damage to the immune system.

In calling for this special body, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson, and Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Robert May, have expressed concern that there has not been enough research to determine whether eating GM food could cause serious health problems in humans. ‘Our understanding of the effect of GMOs on health is still developing,’ Professor Donaldson says.

Scientists peer reviewing Dr Pusztai’s work on potatoes believe that the problem "internal damage to organs, damaged immune systems etc" comes from the vector the cauliflower mosaic virus. What if this was confirmed to be the case. Products like GE Roundup Ready soy, which contain the cauliflower mosaic virus, are widely used in our food supply. Roundup Ready soy has been approved by ANZFA, and allowed into our food supply without any labelling. So who would be liable ?

Given these health concerns, one would expect ANZFA would say to Monsanto and other applicants that their applications would not be considered until they had carried out long-term safety testing. But this has not happened.

I would also like to remind you how difficult it is to work out whether something in our food supply, or a drug we are taking, could cause adverse effects on our health. 10-13% of drugs that have gone through extensive safety testing "far more rigorous than GE food has to undergo" are later found to develop problems that had not shown up in the best available safety assessments.

History is littered with examples of products consumers were told were safe found not to be. Manufacturers of thalidomide assured consumers product safe. Five years later it was found to cause birth defect. Scientists point out that if it had caused cancer or less dramatic health effects, it would still, in all likelihood, be in our food supply.

Similar kinds of health disasters could easily occur with GE foods because we don’t know what forces we are playing with here, and we don’t have an adequate regulatory regime in place.

When you start tinkering around with the genetic structure of food, you have to start thinking of food as pharmaceuticals.

Dr Vivyan Howard, a British toxicologist, says it will be extremely difficult to monitor the public for any ill-effects of GE food because there is no unexposed population against which to measure it. It is he says, essentially an uncontrolled experiment.

GE is by far the most powerful technology that humans have ever discovered. It is being deployed by the same corporations that, historically, have produced a succession of environmental and health disasters (Agent orange, DDT, PCB’s, CFC’s). Is there any good reason to think things will be diferent this time?

7/ The labeling regime that ANZFA is proposing to introduce is partial, inadequate and confusing. As predicted, the government is proposing to water down the definition of what constitutes a GE food, and to exempt entire categories of food from the requirement for labeling---all food additives, food processing agents and highly processed food such as oils and sugars which do not contain detectable levels of altered DNA or protein in the final product.. This exempts entire categories of GE foods such as lecithin and soy oil (which are among the most likely GE ingredients to find their way into New Zealand-made foods). This means that consumers will have no way of avoiding GE foods if they do not want to eat food that has been produced using gene technology.

Fundamental issue is, do consumers have a right not to eat food that has been produced with new technologies like ge or irradiation. Do consumers have a right to take their own precautions, apply precautionary principle in their own supermarkets, and not buy this food. At present, and under proposed regime, consumers have no such right. We are being forced to eat food made with this technology.

9/ Even if the government were to adopt a system of mandatory labeling, this would not be sufficient to ensure that consumers who do not wish to eat GE food are able to do so because entire categories of food are exempt from New Zealand’s labeling requirements, delicatessen food, unwrapped food, take-away food, restaurant food.

10/ Finally, the liability issue. If GE foods were found to cause health effects or significant environmental effects, who would be liable? Insurance companies have let it be know they will provide no long-term insurance for GE disasters, but will only insure for short- term crop damage and negligence. Who would be liable when insects develop resistance to Bt, the organic farmer’s natural pesticide of last resort, for example? It is also not clear who would be liable in the event that GE products which had been approved by ANZFA as being safe were subsequently found to create adverse health effects (particularly severe ones, such as occurred in the case of GE tryptophan). This means bio-technology companies are applying genetic technologies without being insured against genetic damages or risks.

In Spain, government has decided that companies producing or planting GE crops must contribute to a $US100m fund intended to cover for any environmental accidents.

11/ What is clear is that biotechnology companies will gain the profits from this technology, but consumers (and organic farmers etc) will bear the risks of it.

The real question that should be being asked, is that since consumers and food retailers don’t want this food, why are we importing it and growing it at all?

Ends Sue Kedgley

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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (7 May1999)
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