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8-Misc: OECD conference on GE crops and food (1): Overview



----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------

TITLE:  Protesters lobby scientists at GM food conference
SOURCE: PA News, by Hugh Dougherty
DATE:   February 28, 2000

-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------


Protesters lobby scientists at GM food conference

Protesters today demonstrated outside an international gathering of 
scientists discussing genetically modified food. A small group of 
anti-GM activists and animal rights lobbyists were outnumbered by 
police outside the conference in Edinburgh which is set to bring 
together experts from across the world for talks on so-called 
"Frankenstein" foods. Today's conference sponsored by the OECD comes 
after Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded GM food and crops had the 
"potential for harm" to human health and the environment. One of the 
first groups of protesters to highlight the cause in the glare of the 
international media was Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) which 
leafleted delegates on what they say is the suffering caused to 
animals by genetic engineering.

A giant chimera - a creature with a calf's head, sheep and pig's body 
and chicken and goat's legs - highlighted the groups' call for an end 
to genetic experiments on farm animals. Ross Minett campaign officer 
for CIWF said: "Genetic engineering and doing experiments have 
already caused tremendous suffering and death to thousands of farm 
animals. "National governments must listen to the concerns of the 
public and ban the genetic engineering of farm animals."

And the Scottish Green Party also highlighted their objections to GM 
foods being available without rigorous safety testing. Around 400 
experts were taking part in the three-day conference with the 400,000 
bill being footed by the UK government. Chaired by Sir John Krebs, 
professor of Zoology at Oxford University and designate chair of the 
New Food Standards agency, its results will be discussed at a summit 
of the world's wealthiest nations in Japan in July.

Experts from a variety of disciplines including farming, plant 
science, microbiology, ecology and consumer affairs make-up the bulk 
of the conference and concern had earlier been expressed by green 
groups about the lack of input from anti-GM campaigners. But Sir John 
has insisted the conference will not be "a soft soap" meeting of 
those who favour genetically modifying foodstuffs. Mr Blair yesterday 
intervened in the GM debate and shifted the government's stance away 
from its robust defence of GM crops. Writing in the Independent on 
Sunday newspaper he said: "There is no doubt that there is potential 
for harm both in terms of human safety and in the diversity of our 
environment from GM foods and crops. "It's why the protection of the 
public and the environment is and will remain the government's over-
riding priority."

The conference is being sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development. Cabinet Office minister Mo Mowlam told the 
conference that the Government's position on GM foods was unchanged 
despite Mr Blair's apparent U-turn yesterday. "Our position has 
remained consistent," she said. "What we have always said is that 
there are potential harmful effects. "There is always an element of 
risk. What is important in this issue is that the public have 
knowledge of the risks. "We hope that by labelling and the research 
being done that that will be the case."

Sir John, the chairman, said he did not expect consensus in the 
talks, which are set to last until Wednesday, but wanted to hear a 
diversity of views. "It is the first attempt to draw together people 
from around the world in an inclusive debate about genetically 
modified food," he said. "As with all new technologies, biotechnology 
has aroused suspicion, fear and hostility. "The concerns that have 
been expressed range across many issues. For some an over-arching 
concern is the issue of `tampering with nature' in what is seen by 
them as a fundamentally different way from traditional agricultural 
breeding. "For others, the sledgehammer of the traditional breeder is 
being replaced with the fine forceps of the genetic engineer."

Sir John said debate on GM foods had become fragmented and needed to 
focus on the scientific evidence. He was backed by Dr Mowlam, who 
said the OECD had worked hard to get every view included. "There is 
about one third for and one third who are anti-GM," she said. "I hope 
we have done our best to make sure all views are represented."

The OECD secretary general Donald Johnston said: "Science alone 
cannot provide all of the answers we seek. "Decisions have to be made 
on the basis of broader considerations and must involve many segments 
of society."

Delegates at the conference will themselves be eating GM-free food as 
the catering company Leith's has taken steps to make sure all the 
menu items are free from soya or maize. Friends of the Earth director 
Kevin Dunion said: "The organisers of this conference clearly hoped 
that they can issue a statement of reassurance that GM crops and 
foods are safe. "But now it appears that even the conference's own 
catering firm has no confidence in this new technology. "The public 
has made its concerns about GM ingredients very clear and they remain 
unconvinced that GM foods offer any of the benefits the agrochemical 
companies promise. "If this conference is to be of real use then it 
must also examine impacts of GM crops on the environment After all, 
that is where any GM foods will have to be grown."

Later the conference heard that GM foods had been a "lightning rod" 
for the public's concerns and fears about biotechnology. Professor 
Gordon Conway, president of the USA's Rockefeller Foundation, said 
the public had legitimate concerns about GM foods. And he claimed 
they arose because they had not been informed of the potential 
benefits of the crops. "Biotechnology is going through a very 
difficult phase," he said. "Much of the public reaction is in many 
ways a justifiable concern about these developments."

But he said people were willing to accept GM vaccines and said the 
Rockefeller Foundation was working on an HIV vaccine which was almost 
guaranteed to be genetically modified. "People seem happy about GM 
vaccines. My claim is that GM rice could bring similar levels of 
benefit."

And he warned the concentration of GM knowledge in the hands of a 
handful of huge multi-nationals made it more difficult for the public 
to accept the technology. "Unless there is clear public involvement 
in them the progress of biotechnology is at risk," he said. One 
Greenpeace delegate claimed GM foods were being portrayed in the same 
way as nuclear power 40 years ago. "The problems we have are similar 
to 40 years ago when we were told there would be electricity too 
cheap to meter," said Benedikt Haerlin, of Greenpeace International. 
"Billions have now been spent and even more billions will have to be 
spent in order to control the problems which have arisen from the 
introduction of nuclear energy. "We are concerned the same problems 
are being created with genetic modification. "We might be facing the 
problems of how to control the life science problems the life science 
companies are creating by releasing the genetically-modified 
organisms," she said.

Meanwhile, there was concern today that there might not be enough 
farmers willing to take part in the three-year trials of GM crops to 
allow the programme to go ahead. With only a few days left to sow 
crops for this year it was suggested that industry body Scimac might 
not find the 60 sites it needs for the experiment. Dr Brian Johnson, 
head of biotechnology at English Nature, told BBC Radio 4's World at 
One: "The scientific steering committee on the trials met on February 
8 and were told that there was insufficient land coming forward for 
the trials to take place. There were less than 10 sites. "We have to 
get the crops in the fields in the spring for them to grow for the 
next season, so we are up against a very tight deadline now -- 
realistically we have got until the first week or so in March and 
that's it. "It would be set back by a year, turning a three-year 
experiment into a four-year experiment. "We don't know if it's going 
to be a problem at the end of the day, but it certainly was a problem 
earlier this month. Whether the industry have been working very hard 
in the background and come up with enough land, we don't know."

A Scimac spokesman told the programme there had been "literally 
hundreds" of expressions of interest in the scheme from growers. "We 
are confident that we will have sufficient sites to allow a full-
scale programme to go ahead," he said.



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