GENET archive


Misc: Food for thought: Russia joins the battle over GM products

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: RIA Novosti, Russia

AUTHOR: Opinion & Analysis, Olga Sobolevskaya


DATE:   01.03.2007

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MOSCOW - On July 1, the city of Moscow will introduce a voluntary system of food labels indicating that a product does not contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Europe has recently been engaged in a battle with the World Trade Organization (WTO), which, taking its cue from the United States, Canada and Argentina, considers the European Union’s moratorium on GM products illegal. Meanwhile, Europeans have been collecting signatures and protesting against GM foods. In the United States, a lawsuit was filed against the Department of Agriculture after it legalized the commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa sprouts. The court found the agency’s actions illegal. All these events, which involve environmental, agricultural, social and political issues, unfolded during the month of February, highlighting the high profile taken on by the GM controversy. Nevertheless, it would be naive to expect the world to adopt a unified stance on the issue.

In 2000, 828 scientists from 84 countries signed an open letter to the world’s governments warning them of the hazards of GM foods. Environmental organizations demanded that the UN declare a moratorium on GM products. Arguments in favor of GM foods - high crop yields, resistance to diseases, insects and harsh weather, and their low price (they tend to cost 20-30% less than traditional foods) - have also been widely challenged, though without hard evidence. Environmentalists say that GM foods will not solve the problem of world hunger, but they will bankrupt small farmers.

Some biologists believe that GM foods can have a negative effect on the gene pool and reduce biological diversity. Vladimir Kuznetsov, head of the Institute of Plant Physiology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that GM foods are dangerous because they are unpredictable. ”Scientists do not know what effect they will have on the human body in the long term,” he said.

Research is being conducted on GM foods’ effects on human health, particularly those that may trigger allergic reactions, but not all of the results have been made public. There is much debate but few facts. One thing is certain: the GM industry will continue to grow. But by how much?

In January, at the Council on Human Rights Policy in the Kremlin, Natalya Olefirenko, a Greenpeace Russia representative, said that in most Russian regions GM products account for 10-20% of the market. In some cities without sufficient controls in place, the figure is 50%.

In recent years, imports of GM foods (Russia does not produce them) have increased by more than 100 times. The main GM crops are soy beans, potatoes, corn, sugar beets and oilseed rape. By law, products that contain more than 0.9% GM ingredients must be labeled, but in practice this rule is often ignored. Meanwhile, according to an All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center poll, 95% of Russians who have heard of GM foods would not buy them if the products were labeled as such. Consumers, however, are still not able to exercise their right to choose.

Russian bio-engineers, among them Konstantin Skryabin, director of the Bio-Engineering Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believe that GM foods ”won’t get out of the laboratory until they are thoroughly tested. Meanwhile, Russia, with its noncompetitive agricultural market, has to move faster to grow and popularize GM crops.” He added that the GM issue has more to do with business than with science.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, holds a different view. ”With our entry into the WTO, certain issues have to be addressed,” he said in January. ”American and Canadian products, which are, as a rule, genetically modified, are competing on the world agricultural market.” He added that ”...we can use Europe’s experience” and ”...we must inform people about the hazards of GM products.” Putin proposed to set up a council to regulate GM food.

Europe uses diverse methods to combat GM products, including the destruction of genetically modified crop fields in France, passing laws that limit the possibilities of growing GM crops in Germany, banning GM versions of local and protected crops in Bulgaria, or banning all GM products in Poland. The end result of all this is the creation of GM-free zones.

Russia is following Europe’s example. The city of Moscow and the Belgorod Region are leaders in this process. The idea of creating GM-free zones is being discussed in the Volgograd, Kostroma, Murmansk, Ryazan, Sverdlovsk and Ulyanovsk regions. Moscow’s law stipulates that all agricultural raw materials or food that is brought to the city through an organized supply system must contain information about their GM ingredients. It is illegal to use budgetary funds to buy GM children’s food.

Following an inspection of their food, producers will have the right, valid for one year, to put the label ”This product does not contain genetically modified ingredients” on any kind of product. As much as 50 million rubles ($1.9 million) will be set aside to purchase special equipment. The media will inform the public about producers that sell GM products but do not tell consumers.

So while bio-engineers complain about a campaign to discredit GM foods, their opponents are demanding a moratorium to give researchers time to study their medical and biological effects. In the meantime, consumers are trying to make sense of all that is being said about GM foods.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. 


                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: Guardian, UK

AUTHOR: Comment by Ben Goldacre


DATE:   03.03.2007

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In 1998 researcher Arpad Pusztai claimed on television and in the media that GM potatoes stunted rats’ growth and damaged their immune system. When the research was published, over a year later, it turned out to be significantly flawed. But during the two days after the GM ”Frankenstein foods” story broke, on the back of an article in this newspaper, not one of the news articles, opinion pieces or editorials on the subject - in any British newspaper - was written by a science journalist, and because the work was unpublished, no one could comment on the science anyway. It was the turning point in public opinion against GM crops.

And now we have ”Suppressed report shows cancer link to GM potatoes” by the deputy political editor of the Independent, about cancers and tumours in rats fed a genetically modified potato in Russia. According to the article the Russian report was released by Welsh anti-GM campaigners, after a battle to obtain it from the biotech industry.

I found the English commentary on the report at the GM Free Cymru website. It’s 2,000 words long, by a Russian neuroscientist and green campaigner, the only English document on the project that seems to be available. Reading it, I’m not entirely convinced this study warrants the headline, or indeed any coverage at all. It doesn’t mention the words ”cancer” or ”tumour” once.

I chase it up. The Russian activist tells me in an email that they did find ”tumours”. I ask for clarification, and it turns out the researchers actually reported ”cysts in the kidney and in the liver”. Cysts are not cancer, I suggest? They’re not, she agrees.

The first line of the commentary says the studies ”were not carried out according to the accepted protocols for the biomedical assessment of GM food and feed”. In the trial rats were fed Russet Burbank potatoes, or GM Russet Burbank potatoes, or ”standard chow”.

They measured things like body weight and organ size: there is a huge amount of data missing, but you can see that there were massive differences between the ”standard chow” rats, and the rats eating the Russet Burbank potatoes, whether those potatoes were GM or not. ”Both types of Russet Burbank potatoes,” the commentary concludes, ”lead to changes in the blood and internal organs of laboratory rats (in the liver, the kidneys, the large gut, a change of the dimensions of heart and prostate gland and others).” They say: ”And on the basis of this evidence they CANNOT be used in the nourishment of people.” This will come as a great surprise to many farmers, since the Russet Burbank is one of the most commonly grown varieties of potato in the world, and often used for French fries.

I’m no friend of big biotech. I think GM has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture in favour of multinational corporations. So I’m cautious about GM foods, but they seem safe overall. If there’s something new and frightening, then I want to see it published, in full, so we can all sit down and get frightened by it together, on the basis of well-conducted research that we can see and read. Before that, I’m not sure anyone’s very well served by scare headlines about cancer.

Please send your examples of bad science to 


                                  PART 3

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SOURCE: The Independent, UK

AUTHOR: Geoffrey Lean


DATE:   04.03.2007

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Genetically modified potatoes developed by Monsanto, the multinational biotech company, have been fed to sick patients in an experiment. Rats that ate similar potatoes in the research suffered reductions in the weight of their hearts and prostate glands.

Dr Michael Antoniou, reader in molecular genetics at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ School of Medicine, said use of humans was ”irresponsible and totally unethical, especially when already ill subjects were enrolled. These people truly were guinea pigs.” Other scientists said the trials were too short, on too few people, to give meaningful results of long-term effects.

Monsanto said the vegetables were safe, and the researchers conducting the experiment said effects on the rats were within ”permissible” limits.

The experiment is described in a hitherto unpublished report by the Nutrition Institute of the Russian Academy of Medical Science, done ”by agreement with Monsanto Company” in 1998.

The report says ”10 patients suffering from hypertensive disease and ischemic heart disease” were fed a pound of the Russet Burbank potatoes - modified to resist Colorado beetles - every day for three weeks, and monitored.

It goes on: ”A certain risk of GM food products for human health does exist, as there can be by-effects of inserted genes besides the designed ones.” The report describes the patients as ”volunteers” and says they liked the GM potato so much they all ”expressed their intention to consume it at home”.

After comparing them with 10 other patients fed conventional potatoes, the report concludes: ”The genetically modified potato provided by Monsanto did not reveal toxic, mutagenic, immune modulating and allergic effects within the examined parameters of the present experiment”.

It recommended the GM potatoes ”can be used for human nutrition purposes in further epidemiological research”. The report says the rats, tested over six months, suffered ”increases of kidneys’ absolute weight” when compared to ones fed conventional potatoes but that all changes were ”within permissible physiological fluctuation”.

But Dr Irina Ermakova, of the Russian Academy of Science, calls the GM potatoes ”dangerous” for rats, adding: ”On this evidence, they cannot be used in the nourishment of people”.

Tony Coombs from Monsanto UK said in a statement: ”Potatoes genetically improved to prevent Colorado beetle destroying the crop have already been consumed, as safely as conventional or organic ones, in North America for years.” 




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