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Bottling up the gene genies

MagazineNovember 1998 (Vol. 9 Issue 8)Bottling up the gene genies

The latest wrinkle in the ongoing debate on genetic engineering concerns the ability of biotech companies to censor potentially damaging information about their products

The latest wrinkle in the ongoing debate on genetic engineering concerns the ability of biotech companies to censor potentially damaging information about their products.

According to the Lancet, (August 1, 1998) , at a recent public forum on genetic food engineering in Ottawa, Canada, the attendees were shocked to discover that Health Canada, a federal government agency, had forbidden one of its scientists, an avowed critic of biotechnology, to speak at the event. Chopra had been reprimanded by his bosses for an earlier appearance on a television news show, during which he commented that biotech companies were in effect buying the approval of the government on substances such as bovine growth hormone. Richard Wolfson, who heads the Ottawa's Consumer Right to Know Campaign, said that the government's refusal to let Chopra speak at the conference amounted to a "gag order".

The public, he said, is being denied not only labelling on which products now constitute "mutant foods", but also access to "critical information from scientists with an insider's perspective on genetic engineering and its implications". But that is only the latest in what is increasingly being regarded by those opposed to genetic engineering as a conspiracy by the corporate giants to control the media and drip feed out to the public only what they want it to know. In the US, two investigative reporters accused their company, Fox Television, of bowing under pressure to Monsanto, which insisted that a story about bovine growth hormone be either heavily edited or pulled. Steve Wilson, one of the journalists, claims he was offered "hush money", which he refused, and was ultimately fired.

Journalists are not the only ones who are growing uneasy about the cozy relationship between governments and the corporate biotechnocrats. According to the Lancet, Margaret Mellow, director of agriculture and biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists, is concerned that governments are not rigorous enough in their testing requirements for genetically modified foods. As she wrote recently, biotechnology "is not a miracle technology. It's had lots of mistakes. It's an expensive technology that's problematic."

Among those mistakes, according to Britain's Soil Association, are inserting a gene from a snowdrop into a potato. This helped to make the potato resistant to greenfly, but also proved lethal to ladybirds. The trial was eventually stopped. In another instance, production of soya beans which had been "enhanced" with a gene from a Brazil nut had to be halted when it was discovered that people allergic to nuts were also reacting to the beans.

Over the next two years, genetically modified foods will be pouring into Britain and other countries from sources such as America. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes has determined that the new genetically modified soya beans (which aren't segregated from the non modified variety) are as safe as the traditional version. If that's the case, says, Derek Burke, former chairman of the advisory committee, what's the big problem here?

The problem, here, of course is that one might as well consult a crystal ball as predict with any certainty the long term effect of genetically mutated foodstuffs. The Lancet quoted Byron Rigby, president of the Australian Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, as saying that biotechnology's "completely imponderable effects" could make Chernobyl, mad cow disease and cane toads combined look like Disneyworld.

We as consumers must insist on our right to stronger regulation, clear labelling and segregation of mutated foodstuffs. But fundamentally, we must assert our fundamental right to know the likely effects of tampering with our food supply, so that companies like Monsanto are not allowed to bottle up the gene genies.

!ALynne McTaggart

Crime and nourishment

Bloated questions to ask the gp

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