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7-Misc.: Canadian scientists raise concerns about GE plants

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TITLE:  Consumers in dark on superplants
        Professor: Benefits not weighed against possible risks
        by Kim Honey
SOURCE: The Globe and Mail, Canada
DATE:   April 16, 1999

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Consumers in dark on superplants
Professor: Benefits not weighed against possible risks

Canadians are out to lunch when it comes to the environmental risks of genetically modified food, a University of Guelph agronomist told a public forum in Toronto yesterday. And they haven't been helped by media that are indifferent to the story and companies that discuss risks behind closed doors, said Ann Clark, an associate professor at the Ontario Agricultural College. "What is good for industry is not necessarily good for people or the environment," she told a breakfast meeting organized by Toronto Biotechnology Initiative. She is concerned about genetically modified plants crossbreeding with wild relatives and, in the case of a herbicide-resistant crop, creating a superweed that could swamp rare and vulnerable species, not to mention the effect on biodiversity. She also worries how soil composition will be affected and whether beneficial organisms such as ladybugs, which eat aphids from potato plants, will be affected. Professor Clark also criticized the federal and prov!
incial governments for spending $700-million on biotechnology research and not one dollar on risk-assessment studies.

Scientists have been tinkering with genes for decades, taking the DNA responsible for a genetic trait they value from one organism and inserting it into another, unrelated, plant or animal. In this way, life-science companies such as Monsanto have created varieties of soybeans and corn that are resistant to the company's herbicide Roundup, so farmers can spray their fields to wipe out weeds without hurting their crops. And, in an application that has great benefits for both humans and animals, tobacco plants are being used as a platform to grow proteins and metabolites that are then used to make drugs, vaccines, antibodies and industrial enzymes. It's called molecular farming, and it's happening at Agriculture Canada's Southern Crop Protection and Food Research Centre in London, Ont.

Dr. Brandle said molecular farming in the field could pose risks to wildlife, for example, if deer nibbled at a plant that was being used to grow a vaccine for animals. He said the plants do have novel traits that are not found in nature, but the risks are largely unknown. Then again, Dr. Brandle pointed out that technology often outstrips safety concerns: "When cars came out, they didn't have seat belts." University of Guelph entomologist Mark Sears agreed there are risks associated with genetic modification of plants, but the chairman of the University of Guelph's environmental biology department believes there are far more benefits. 


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