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3-Food: Engineered-food claims are hard to swallow

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TITLE:  Engineered-food claims are hard to swallow
SOURCE: The Seattle Times, USA, by Philip L. Bereano
DATE:   Nov 19, 2002

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Engineered-food claims are hard to swallow

"What is being presented as an act of charity is in fact nothing more than 
an act of marketing."
- Zimbabwean farmer at the Johannesburg Earth Summit, referring to U.S. 
dumping of genetically engineered food aid in Africa

A number of recent editorials and opinion pieces in the media regarding 
famine in southern Africa claim that genetically engineered (GE) food is 
necessary to "feed the world."

These may actually be attempts to bolster the sagging fortunes of the 
biotech industry rather than efforts to end hunger. Arguing that spoiled 
yuppies of the European Union and U.S. are blocking attempts to end famine 
in Africa by attacking genetically engineered foods, these articles 
generally distort the existing knowledge relevant to GE issues.

The principal claim they make is that there is no evidence that genetically 
engineered food poses a health risk. "No evidence of risk" is not the same 
as "evidence of no risk." Since neither the U.S. government nor industry 
appears to be funding any research into the health effects of GE food, the 
situation is really "don't look/don't find."

Thus, no one knows whether continued eating of genetically engineered food 
is safe. Perhaps chronic exposure to GE food might be associated with the 
70 million incidents each year of "food poisoning" reported by the 
government, or with the apparent rises in autism or attention deficit 
disorder in kids. Or, perhaps not.

Whatever industry research there may actually be on GE food, it is not 
reported in the open, peer-reviewed literature where it would be subjected 
to the rigors of scientific scrutiny. It is secreted away as "confidential 
business information." Nonetheless, the U.S. government calls this approach 
to not regulating GE food "sound science." Claims that the United Nations 
has certified that such food is safe to eat are based on such irregular 
studies, not independent testing.

Indeed, the U.N. is in the process of establishing a biosafety protocol to 
regulate the international movement of transgenic organisms, including 
food. It should be operational by next spring, and will explicitly 
recognize the legitimacy of the actions taken by the southern African 
countries in rejecting the importation of GE foods. In the meantime, many 
countries currently have put up barriers to GE food, which is severely 
impacting U.S. agricultural exports.

The protocol has, as a key component, the "precautionary principle," a 
doctrine of risk regulation stating the old adages "look before you leap" 
and "better safe than sorry." Similar to dozens of U.S. regulatory 
statutes, the principle says that when there is scientific uncertainty 
about a potentially important risk, a government is justified in 
prohibiting action until more scientific research is done to better 
establish the exact risk parameters. And then, when there is information, a 
society may make an informed choice as to what level of risk it chooses to 

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a political decision in 
1992, without any scientific inquiry and over the objections of some of its 
senior scientists, that genetically engineered foods were "substantially 
equivalent" to conventional varieties.

In other words, if they share a few characteristics in common, they are 
probably the same in other characteristics. So ... Since GE tomatoes are 
round, red and hang from their vines they must be as healthy as 
conventional tomatoes.

The biotech industry, however, has no shame in going across the street to 
another federal agency, the Patent Office, and arguing that GE foods are 
substantially different from conventional ones, and so should be awarded 

Hunger is a political/economic phenomenon, not essentially a technical one. 
That is why countries like the U.S. have so many hungry residents despite 
our huge food surpluses, and why Ethiopia (the former poster child of 
malnutrition) has been able to be food-self-sufficient for the past seven 
years, using traditional technologies within an overall system of careful 
conservation practices and planning.

All the technical "revolutions" we have proclaimed - hybrids, pesticides 
and other agrichemicals, the Green Revolution, etc. - have not ended world 
hunger, and it sounds like a shell game to proclaim that just one more 
(technical) fix is going to do the trick.

In fact, there are signs that the biotech industry may be in dire straits. 
A study by the British Soil Association (an organics group) titled "Seeds 
of Doubt" recently estimated that North America lost over $12 billion in 
the period 1994 to 2000. It notes:
- The profitability of growing GE herbicide-tolerant soya and insect-
resistant maize is less than non-genetically modified crops;
- The claims of increased yields have not been realized overall except for 
a small increase in some maize yields.
- GE herbicide-tolerant crops have made farmers more reliant on herbicides 
and new weed problems have emerged;
- All farmers are suffering a severe reduction in choice about how they 
farm as a result of the introduction of genetically modified crops by some;
- Non-GE seeds have become almost completely contaminated by genetically 
engineered components.

The industry, its government allies and their spokespeople don't seem 
particularly concerned with their need to dump unwanted food upon 
unwilling, but starving, people. Indeed, there is evidence that they 
welcome this chaos as leading to a situation in which opposition to GE 
foods will be rendered futile. As Emmy Simmons, assistant administrator of 
the U.S. Agency for International Development, said to me after the cameras 
stopped rolling on a vigorous debate we had on South Africa TV, "In four 
years, enough GE crops will have been planted in South Africa that the 
pollen will have contaminated the entire continent."

Let organic farmers, the producers of heirloom varieties, and even those 
who plant conventional but unique hybrids be damned. Under the specious 
claims of "free choice" for farmers, the industry will deny consumers all 
choice about whether to eat engineered genomes.

The repeated insistence that the countries of Africa are being manipulated 
by white northern activists reflects a colonialist mentality that cannot 
imagine Third World nations being able to decide what is actually in their 
best interests. At a meeting of the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural 
Organization in June 1998, all the delegates from the continent (except 
South Africa) published a statement that "strongly object(ed) that the 
image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant 
multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, 
environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."

More Americans should be asking why propaganda is keeping us from being 
educated about subjects that Africans seem to know so well.

Philip L. Bereano is a University of Washington professor in the field of 
technology and public policy. He has participated in the negotiations of 
the biosafety protocol and attended the Earth Summits in Rio and 
Johannesburg on behalf of national and Washington state citizens' 


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