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Genetically modified foods feed unrest in the global village

January 3, 2000

Henry Geraedts, in his December 28 Forum piece (“Future of safe plentiful foods lies in genetic experiments”) branded everyone who raises legitimate concerns about genetically engineered foods as hysterical, fear-mongering luddites.

Geraedts correctly states that polls show the vast majority of us want foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) labelled as such. However, he must know the reason we want labelling is to avoid purchasing these products, not, as he so disingenuously suggests, in order to embrace them.

Of course, the biotechnology industry in which Geraedts works, is not averse to staggering misrepresentations. Most common are industry claims that everything is fine because we’ve been practicing genetic engineering for  millennia.

You don’t need a degree in molecular biology to know that selectively breeding one cow with another or cross-pollinating related species of plants is not the same thing as sticking a fish gene in a tomato.

A similar argument was put forward in a December 20 Vancouver Sun editorial (“Modified foods may enrich our health”), which described people concerned about the many unknowns surrounding genetically engineered crops as “angry villagers” in a Frankenstein film.

The editorial suggested there was no need to label GMOs as they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GMOs.

This is another popular biotech myth. The test to establish this supposed equivalence deal only with known toxicants and cannot, at this stage, properly address potential allergic reactions and other issues of concern. An October 1999 article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature condemned the use of substantial equivalence in international safety regulations for genetically-engineered food as a “pseudo-scientific concept” serving the interest of big business.

Yet the biotech industry continues to argue that apples and oranges are the same thing, or at least substantially equivalent. By the time the biotech industry finishes with them, apples and oranges may very well be the same thing, but for now, thank goodness, they’re not.

I doubt I’m alone in hearing alarm bells sound with Geraedts asserts that traditional cross-breeding and pollinating methods were inferior because they “lacked the ability to selectively manipulate DNA”.

There is no question that genetic manipulation holds infinite possibilities for astounding developments in medical research. Many people have already benefited.

It is also true that this technology, still in its infancy, has claimed victims, including 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger who died in Philadelphia last September, four days after an unsuccessful attempt to genetically engineer his DNA to correct an enzyme deficiency.

Precisely because this technology is still in its infancy and because the one thing we have learned from scientific and technological development is that unsuspected and often catastrophic repercussions may not manifest themselves for decades. Greenpeace, David Suzuki and countless others believe this experiment should be kept where it belongs: in the lab.

It sounds reassuring that all the products are “peer reviewed”. But what does this mean? It means that research conducted by some guys in lab coats is checked by other guys in lab coats who review the findings and say “Looks okay to me” or “You made a mistake here”.

It is, in theory, a crucial process, set up to catch flaws and oversights.

Unfortunately, some flaws and oversights are not immediately apparent. Thalidomide was peer reviewed before it went on the market – with tragic consequences.

In recognition of the fact that GMOs are indeed the genie in the bottle, the British Medical Association in May 1999 called for a moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops until there is scientific consensus on their long-term environmental effects.

The BMA warned that any adverse effects were likely to be irreversible and said: “As we cannot yet know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or human health, the precautionary principle should apply.”

While it is much reviled by the chemical and biotech industries as an impediment to quick profits, the precautionary principle reflect the basic tenet of medicine: Do no harm.

This sensible principle places the onus on manufacturers to prove that products are safe before they are put on the market and into the environment. The BMA would doubtless be astonished to find itself described as “reactionary” and “socially destructive” – the words Geraedts used in his vitriolic attack on the precautionary principle.

Had the in-depth analyses required to satisfy the precautionary principle been implemented much earlier, we might have been spared the countless deaths caused by cancer, and the reproductive and immune system malfunctions which have plagued humans and wildlife in the past five decades. We might not have huge CFC-induced holes in the ozone layer about our polar regions. We would certainly be a healthier species living on a less-polluted planet.

Geraedts suggests the precautionary principle would somehow have prevented the Gutenberg printing press and the Wright Brothers’ first flight. This is such blatant nonsense I’m surprised he didn’t throw in fire and the wheel for good measure.

He also bemoans the fact that the precautionary principle would have impeded the work of many Nobel prize winners. In this category he mentions Michael Smith, but fails to cite Paul Mueller, the Swiss entomologist and 1948 winner of the Nobel prize in medicine. Dr Mueller won this accolade for developing a product which was supposed to safely revolutionize agriculture: DDT.

Most bizarrely, Geraedts asks if Albert Einstein could have demonstrated that the theory of relativity was not harmful. If what Geraedts is asking is whether nuclear power could have been approved had the precautionary principle been adopted, the answer is most emphatically no. When the first atomic bomb, which his theory of mass energy equivalence helped to create, was dropped on Hiroshima, Einstein’s prophetic comment was: “Now everything changes except our way of thinking and thus we hurtle towards unparalleled destruction.”

Perhaps it wasn’t wholly inaccurate of the Sun to refer to GE skeptics as angry villagers. The fact is, the global villagers are angry.

We’re angry because we don’t think a handful of corporations should be manipulating and controlling the entire planet’s food supply for short-term profit, while refusing to take responsibility for the long-term consequences.

–       Vancouver Sun, 11 January 2000

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