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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (8 May 1999)
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Lay Forum on Genetically Engineered Foods

Fourteen informed lay people discussed the issues of labelling and safety of genetically engineered foods in a one day panel forum in Wellington today.
In the morning they listened and asked questions to the seven speakers they had invited. The public was allowed to raise questions in writing, which were also considered by the panellists before they wrote their report in the afternoon.
The panel's findings amount to a vote of no confidence in the precautions and safeguards provided by the authorities to ensure food safety in New Zealand.

The panellists were certainly not running away from their responsibilities. Nor were they afraid of revising their assessment of the risks of genetically engineered crops and foods and the role of the authorities.

Sixteen panellists had originally met in a Talking Technology conference on Plant Biotechnology in May 1996. The seven questions of 1996 concerned ownership of plant genes, reliability of claimed GE benefits, education, environmental risks and precautions, and consideration of Maori values.

In 1996 the panellists had been randomly selected from 232 volunteers who responded to advertisements in newspapers throughout New Zealand. They represent that section of the ordinary New Zealander who reads the newspapers and has the skills and interest to become a volunteer.

For today's forum fourteen of the original panellists returned. In a preparatory meeting in April they had determined the focus of today's conference as well as the speakers to be invited.

The panel heard 15 minute speeches by
Andrew McKenzie, Director-designate of MAF Food Assurance Authority (due to come into existence on 1 July 1999),
Jeanette Fitzsimons, Co-leader of the NZ Green Party,
Hugh Baber, CEO of ANZFA NZ, Australia New Zealand Food Authority,
Gillian Durham, Director of Public Health and Deputy Director-General of Safety & Regulation Branch, Ministry of Health,
Kevin Currie, Operations Manager of ERMA NZ, Environment Risk Management Authority,
Sue Kedgley, Safe Food Campaign No-Nonsense View on GE,
Brenda Cuttress, spokesperson of the NZ Groceries Manufacturers Association.

The public had the opportunity to submit questions to the panellists in writing. These questions were taken into consideration by the panel in preparing their report.

After a long day of hard work the panellists presented their findings in writing to the public and answered questions. And, frankly, we were impressed by their independence and clarity of speech.
After the event we had a brief interview with two of the panellists and we complimented them on their work. The reply was that three years ago they had believed much of what the authorities and industry said. But they had meanwhile realised that the issue warrants extreme care.
The 1996 conference was organised by predominantly representatives of NZ research institutes, including a major international genetic engineering and pesticide corporation.

We think that labelling and safety of genetically engineered foods is only half of the problem. The other half is the biosafety question - is it safe to introduce genetically modified crops and organisms into the natural environment? We think it is not safe, nor necessary. Neither do we agree with the organiser's viewpoint, that "One thing is clear. Genetic engineering and genetically modified food will not go away". We would say that that should be a matter of democratic decision-taking.

The claimed benefits of genetically engineered crops and organisms are evasive, based on hopes and illusionary reasoning.

Genetic engineering is practised for the financial benefit of the shareholders of GE corporates, providing work for research institutes. The public neither needs nor wants GE. Pesticide-resistant crops will increase the level of pesticide residues in our daily foods. Our authorities are already proposing a twenty-fold increase in tolerated maximum pesticide residues. One may wonder whether the shareholders and corporate leaders realise that they are consumers at the same time, and as such equally subject to the effects of their genetic engineering ventures.

Secondly it is simply impossible that GE plants will help "feeding the future world population". Even if a GE plant would have a higher harvest per acre, this higher output will require equivalent higher inputs in soil nutrients and fertilisers. In a world in which we are rapidly depleting our resources, we do not require a higher production but a lower consumption in order to achieve sustainability of lifestyles.

See the next two news items for the panel's full report and draft conclusions.

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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (8 May 1999)
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