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TITLE:  Are genetically modified foods good for us? - Caricom working on
        regional policy
SOURCE: Stabroeks News, Guayana, by Christopher Yaw
        http://www.stabroeknews.com/index.pl/article_business?id=15332364
DATE:   1 Apr 2005

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


Are genetically modified foods good for us? -Caricom working on regional
policy

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are touted by their advocates as a
breakthrough in agricultural technology from which developing countries
can benefit.

However there are those who say more research and continued surveillance
is needed to address the potential risks posed to human health and the
environment by GM foods. Yet others, like Consumer International (CI),
say they should not even exist. CI's theme for World Consumer Day, which
was March 15, was 'Say NO to GMO.' The European Union also does not
accept GMO products.

GMOs or Living Modified Organisms (LMO) are created by scientists who mix
and match genes. For example, one gene can be taken from one species and
inserted into the genetic code of another, or an organism's genetic code
can be rearranged to make it do something it normally would not. GMOs may
be micro-organisms designed for use as seeds that have been altered
genetically to make a plant disease resistance or improve its growth.


Tomatoes and corn

Genetically engineered foods are grown and sold in Guyana though not on a
large scale. The tomatoes are grown by several farmers in the remote
regions, while Amerindians grow a bacteria-resistant corn for their own
sustenance.

Victor Pires of Caribbean Chemicals says the fears surrounding GMOs are
unfounded. He says in the case of the tomatoes grown locally they are not
strictly GM foods because the scientists have simply removed the gene
that began the process of breaking down the fruit's cells. He has two
clients who are using them in remote locations where it takes some time
to transport produce to the coast. The only drawback is that the seeds
are five times more expensive than regular hybrids.

Eileen Cox in her Sunday column Consumer Concerns recently wrote that
among concerns related to GM products are whether the new genes or
proteins might produce toxins that can cause harm in the long or short
term and whether the new gene might produce a protein that triggers an
allergic reaction in a person who eats the food.

Consumers are also concerned that serious health problems may not appear
for years. They also think there is a possibility that fields
neighbouring that of a man who has made a decision to produce GM rice may
be affected.

There is the potential risk of gene transfer between LMOs and wild plants
that may be repositories of important genes that should not be
contaminated. An instance of this occurred in the UK where farmers
discovered that they had been growing GM crops for two years when plants
had accidentally been exposed to GM material from nearby fields. This
could therefore become a factor in Guyana's attempts to find a niche for
organic food.

The other GM crop being grown in Guyana is a variety of corn that is
informally imported by Amerindians from Brazil and Venezuela where it is
widely available. Such corn has a naturally occurring bacteria inserted
into its gene makeup that resists caterpillars. This means yields are
much higher and there is no need for pesticides that can themselves be
harmful.


Advantages

GM foods are designed to have increased resistance to drought, disease
and pests, which together with storage problems, cause losses of up to
40% of harvests in some countries.

Less reliance on pesticides not only promises less pollution of soils and
groundwater, it also opens the way to enhancing biodiversity.

At the consumer end of the chain, the possibility of adding dietary
supplements to certain plants and crop quality improvement will have the
potential to reduce losses in transport and to prolong shelf life. The
tomatoes mentioned earlier fit into this class of benefits for consumers.

Despite the concerns, John Caesar, Guyana's Bio-diversity Project Co-
ordinator says Guyana could benefit from biotechnology which should still
be seen as a tool that allows for the development of plants, animals, and
human health beyond the traditional methods.


Disadvantages

Minister of Agriculture Satyadeow Sawh, in his World Consumer Rights Day
message said potential risks are often presented to the public as fact,
despite the very considerable lack of experimental evidence. He however
noted there is a risk of generic pollution where genetically engineered
crops contaminate neighbouring non-GM crops. There is also the fear as
mentioned earlier that GM crops contaminate neighbouring non-GM crops and
farmers also fear their traditional seed supply systems would be destroyed.

A distinct disadvantage for countries such as Guyana was given by Caesar,
who said most developing countries do not have the technological or human
resources for the monitoring or development of advanced bio-technological
research. For instance personnel of the Customs and Trade Administration
and the Guyana National Bureau of Standards (GNBS) were not able to say
if Guyana imports GM foods or products and in what quantities.

Dr Mae-Wan Ho Director of the Institute of Science in Society wrote
recently that genetic engineering greatly enhances horizontal gene
transfer and recombination, the very processes that create new viruses
and bacteria that cause outbreaks of infectious diseases and spread drug
and antibiotic resistance.

Some companies in the developed world are viewing GMO products as
disturbing factors for their public image. Recently, Canada's McCain
Foods, that country's largest producer of French fries, says it will no
longer buy genetically modified foodstuff. "We think genetically modified
material is very good science but, at the moment, very bad public
relations," said Harrison McCain, company president.

Pires notes there is a divide in the world over the use of GM foods which
is really between the developing world and the developed. Many in
developed countries are ambivalent over their use as it is considered
tampering with nature.

But Pires says this is a luxury many in the developing world can hardly
contemplate. They simply need food. He points to work by the
International Rice Research Institute which has developed a strain of
rice enriched with the vitamin A through genetic modification. He also
cites the development of a cotton variety that obviates the need for
dangerous pesticides.


Labelling

Another issue surrounding GM food locally is that Guyana imports
foodstuff from the USA and also receives donated corn and wheat from the
same source, which probably means GMOs or GM products are already finding
their way into the market here although they are not labelled as such. A
large proportion of the soya bean grown in the US is genetically modified
and this is in all likelihood being imported for use in poultry and
cattle feed. The GNBS says GM is a major change in food production where
genes are transferred between unrelated species. It is prevalent in five
countries the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China who together
account for 96.5% of the global cultivation and would have consumers
believe that genetic modification is a small matter of minor importance
and that labelling requirements should be voluntary or not necessary but
nothing is further from the truth.

Cox wrote in her column that efforts have been made to have mandatory
labelling requirements for genetically modified food. The three largest
producers the US, Canada and Argentina have no mandatory labelling
requirements. On the other hand, the EU legislation on GM food and food
labelling that came in to force in October 2003 is among the strictest in
the world. Accordingly the European Union and Japan are willing to
maintain labelling and traceability standards for GM food products, while
the United States claims it violates free trade agreements.

In 2002 China announced plans to introduce compulsory GM food labelling.
In Australia only foods with GM proteins detectable in testing must be
labelled. India, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have adopted labelling
schemes similar to Australia's. Regulation in Brazil includes mandatory
use of the symbol indicating GM content.

But Pires says Guyanese have been eating GM foods for the last 15 years.
He based his statement on the fact that the genetic modification of food
began since the 1970s, went semi-commercial in the 1980s and really got
large when herbicide resistant varieties were discovered such as the
Roundup Ready variety.

He also expressed the belief that the EU's policy on GM foods resulted
from the fact that their market was being flooded with cheap GM products
from the US which was closely followed by Brazil. Hence the decision to
stop importation of GM products as a trade blocking strategy, he said.

CI is an organisation which represents customers and has 250 member
organisations in 115 countries. The CI council envisages that the first
important step will be for all members to encourage their governments to
support guidelines for GM labelling at the next meeting of Codex
Alimentarius on Food Labelling (CCFL) in May in Malaysia.

Manzoor Nadir, Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce said in his
World Consumer Day message that it is important that all consumers be
made aware of what they are exposed to and what they might be consuming
in order to make better choices, reduce unnecessary risk and safeguard
their health and lives.

Where GMOs are concerned consumers have a right to be educated, a right
to be informed, a right to safety, a right to be heard in this unsettled
debate, he said.


Policy

The government's policy on organic agriculture is that the uses of GM
processes, materials or seeds are not appropriate in organic production,
or in the manufacture of organic products, Sawh noted.

Caricom has however recently established a working group on GMOs after a
document was tabled titled "A need for a Regional Policy on GMOs" at the
13th meeting of COTED. President Bharrat Jagdeo in his presentation to
the 25th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the
Caribbean Community in July 2004 made reference to GMOs. He said that in
response to advancing science and technology application in agriculture
and food production one of the actions Caribbean countries have been
taking on is aimed at the pursuit of initiatives towards defining a
regional policy on agricultural biotechnology and biosafety, including
the use of GMOs.

Sawh also mentioned that because of the controversy and differing
positions held by the EU and US on the issue, the government is in the
process of developing a coherent policy on GMO.




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