GENTECH archive



---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 24 Dec 1998 17:40:42 +1100
From: (Bob Phelps)


         Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
                December 12 1998 under the headline



WHEN they asked Peter Corish to be a guinea pig for Australia's first
genetically engineered crop, he jumped at the chance. "In the glasshouse
it worked brilliantly," says the cotton farmer from Goondiwindi on the
NSW-Queensland border. "We thought it would be the answer to a lot of our

The cotton farmer's biggest bugbear is a caterpillar called helicoverpa,
the larva of a moth which, left to its own devices, can munch its way
through an entire crop. The traditional solution has been a highly toxic
pesticide, sprayed from the air up to a dozen times during the growing
season, with serious consequences for the environment, and claims of
"cancer clusters" among nearby farming communities. 

But six years ago a new species of cotton that was claimed to be immune to
the helicoverpa caterpillar, and any other pest, came out of the
laboratory and into Australia's paddocks. It had been developed jointly by
the CSIRO and Monsanto, the giant US corporation. 

Using what scientists call biolistics, a "gene gun" that fires microscopic
gold or tungsten cannonballs coated with genetic material into living
cells, they had managed to create a cotton plant that manufactures
bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a micro-organism deadly to insects which
occurs naturally in the soil and is one of the very few pesticides even
organic farmers are allowed to use. 

It is harmless to humans. But, in theory at least, if a helicoverpa
caterpillar bites a chunk out of a leaf of this new cotton variety, it
will curl up and drop dead. No more spraying, a cleaner environment,
bigger profits for the farmers, a more competitive export industry for
Australia, it sounded too good to be true. 

And it was. In 1996 the Federal Government approved the commercial release
of the patented Ingard cotton, as it is called, the first and so far the
only genetically modified (GM) crop grown in Australia. Corish, the
chairman of Cotton Australia, the organisation that represents the 1,500
growers, watched eagerly for the results. 

Like the curate's egg, they were good in parts. Growers were able to
reduce their use of pesticides by up to 65per cent. But yields were also
down that first season, and Monsanto exploited its monopoly position,
charging farmers $245 a hectare for a licence to grow Ingard, almost
double what it charged US farmers. By the time the growers did their
accounts, many complained that they had lost money with the new miracle
pest-proof cotton. 

This year, the third season, only about 16per cent of the 500,000 hectares
under cotton in Queensland and NSW have been sown to Ingard. This is
partly because of the innate conservatism of farmers, and partly the
caution of the Federal Government, which has imposed a ceiling of 20per
cent until it better understands the consequences of letting loose a
transgenic organism into the fragile Australian environment, which most
would feel has already suffered enough havoc from exotic species,
introduced, admittedly, with the best of intentions. 

But this huge experiment is not just a debate about a new crop, farmers'
incomes or even biological pollution, important as they may be. It is a
debate that touches all of us in the most intimate and fundamental way,
it's about who decides what we eat, about the safety and the security of
our food supply. 

For two years now, oil crushed from the seeds of that transgenic cotton
has been sold for human consumption, and the residue fed to livestock. The
oil is used in fish-and-chip shops, and is blended to make products
ranging from margarine to mayonnaise and cake-mix. And this is just the

That oil is just one of a number of transgenic foods, from beer to cheese
to baby food, which, with no announcement, no approval from any government
organisation, no mandatory health or safety checks, and no labelling, have
been quietly infiltrating Australia's supermarkets. One food industry guru
estimates that up to 60per cent of the bottles, tins and packages on the
shelves may already contain genetically engineered food, and that most of
us will already have unknowingly eaten some. 

On one side of the debate are the vested interests of the global agri/food
industry, which stands to make billions of dollars from its investment in
the new technology. They argue powerfully that the new crops represent a
second "green revolution", essential if we are to feed the billions of
extra mouths arriving on the planet in coming decades; that the products
are safe; and that by increasing yields and eliminating the need for weed-
and insect-killing poisons they promise a cleaner, greener planet. 

Ranged against them is a noisy coalition of environmental, consumer,
health and religious groups who mistrust the speed and secrecy with which
the new foods have been foisted on us, who are concerned about their
possible dangers to consumers, and who fear they may spawn "Frankenstein"
plants and insects, with catastrophic consequences for the environment. 

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and a committed "greenie" who
converses with his vegetables, spoke for them with religious fervour
earlier this year when he said: "Do we have the right to experiment with
and commercialise the building blocks of life? I personally have no wish
to eat anything produced by genetic manipulation, nor do I knowingly offer
this sort of produce to my family or guests." 

The extraordinary thing is that, unlike in Europe, where consumer
activists have blockaded ports, stormed the headquarters of food companies
and attacked genetically engineered crops in the field, Australians have
barely begun to discuss the most fundamental change to our diet since
European settlement.  A GLANCE at the Internet Web page of the Australian
Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, 20 scientists appointed by the
Government to decide which of these GM crops is safe to grow, and under
what conditions, gives an idea of the range of new plants scientists are
working on that may eventually finish up on our dinner plates. 

Among 110 ongoing experiments are potatoes that don't go brown when you
knock them about, and which have an increased starch content so they don't
absorb as much oil when they are fried. Canola and sugar cane are being
developed with a built-in resistance to bugs and herbicides, and
super-nutritious lupins have been "injected" with a sunflower gene that is
supposed to make sheep grow more wool when they eat them. 

In Queensland Dr Jose Botella, in conjunction with Golden Circle Ltd, is
working on a gene he hopes will make whole fields of pineapples all ripen
at once so they can be harvested more cheaply. Other Australian
scientists, supported by tens of millions of dollars' worth of government
grants and tax subsidies, are trying to engineer wheat that makes better
noodles, citrus with no seeds, peas that kill weevils. 

Dr Thomas "TJ" Higgins, the scientist who heads the CSIRO's "gene team",
says there is a potential for the new plants to save Australian
agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But he acknowledges he
is disappointed that only one of the new plants (the Ingard cotton) that
has come out of his laboratory at the foot of Canberra's Black Mountain in
the past 10 years has yet been commercially grown, and says Australia "has
been fairly slow to take up the new technology". 

The reason? Political opposition (Labor went to the last Federal election
promising strict labelling for all GM food) and growing concerns about the
safety of the new technology among health, environment and consumer
groups, which take their cue from Europe. 

There, in a series of highly publicised incidents, Greenpeace activists
blocked the entry into port of three cargo ships carrying American GM soya
beans, destroyed crops and unrolled a large banner from the roof of
Nestle's headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, proclaiming, "Gene Food
Force-Fed by Nestle". The British, in particular, have had their faith in
official reassurances shaken by the lies they were told about the
scientific "impossibility" of "mad cow disease" being transmitted from
beef to humans, more than a dozen people are now confirmed dead from it. 

The crusade has resulted in the European Union promulgating labelling laws
for genetically engineered foodstuffs, which the industry says are
unworkably tough, and has led to a number of bans by high-profile
companies. Unilever, Nestle and the chocolate company Kraft Jacobs Suchard
have all said they will not use GM products. 

Some supermarkets in Denmark, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany
have also banned genetically engineered food. In Britain, Malcolm Walker,
boss of the Iceland chain, which has 750 stores, declared: "I'm not
frightened to say this isn't right and we won't do it. There is no
practical reason why we should be genetically modifying anything. Genetics
is incredibly inexact. We are playing with fire [and] I think it's

Not so in the United States, which pioneered genetic engineering, and
where 48 different food products have already been approved and hundreds
more are on the drawing boards. Almost all, however, like the Ingard
cotton, offer advantages to the seed corporation, the farmer, the
distributor and the retailer, but nothing to the consumer. 

Americans are already able to eat sterile radicchio, borer-resistant
popcorn, virus-resistant pawpaw, potatoes deadly to their main pest, the
Colorado beetle, and six new varieties of tomato genetically altered to
"enhance fresh market value", whatever that might mean. 

But Mitchell Hooke, executive director of the Australian Food Council,
which represents the country's main food manufacturers, proselytises about
the next generation of designer fruit and vegetables: strawberries
containing increased levels of ellagic acid, a "natural cancer- fighting
agent"; garlic with more allicin, said to reduce cholesterol levels; fruit
with extra vitamins C and E; and canola and soya bean oil with more
stearate, to produce healthier margarine. 

Growing in laboratories are even more weird and wonderful creations. The
Swedes have spliced a gene from a mustard plant into an aspen tree to make
it grow faster; the Americans are trying to engineer vaccines into bananas
which would immunise the consumer against tropical diseases; the Chinese
have "crossed" a flounder with a sugar beet to make it more resistant to
cold; mouse genes have been spliced into tobacco, and a chicken gene into
potatoes. Human genes have been added to salmon, trout and rice, playing
on our darkest dreads. 

The first transgenic animals, 21 varieties of fish from abalone to shrimp
and rainbow trout, are already being bred in the US, including a
supersalmon which has a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon spliced into
it. So concerned is British Columbia about the unguessable consequences of
these fish escaping into the wild that it has banned their farming in sea

In Adelaide, the small research company BresaGen provided a glimpse two
years ago of what may be the future when it spliced human genetic material
into a pig to try to produce an animal with less fat and more meat. Amid
huge controversy about overtones of cannibalism, the company was forced to
abandon the experiment, write off $12million in Commonwealth subsidies and
tax-deducted investment, and destroy the pigs. 

"It was a huge frustration, and in the end we opted out," says the
company's managing director, Dr John Smeaton. "We could never get a
definitive answer out of the various regulatory authorities [on whether
the "new pork' could be sold for human consumption] and a few noisy people
stirred it up as an emotional issue."  HARD evidence about the effects on
human health of eating these revolutionary new foods is hard to come by,
particularly since, unlike a drug, there is no obligation anywhere to test
their safety on humans, and in some cases there are not even any animal
trials. "Obviously, if a whole load of bunnies die, it's not OK for
humans," said an Australian food industry spokeswoman. 

One concern is that antibiotic-resistant "marker genes" used in the
genetic engineering process may somehow transfer into the human body.
Hooke dismisses this as "about as likely as a supernova hitting the

Another fear, for which there is already some scientific support, is the
risk of transferring an alien allergen into a previously safe foodstuff. 
The US Union of Concerned Scientists, a prestigious group that includes a
number of Nobel laureates, cites a study in which seven out of nine
volunteers showed allergic reactions to a soya bean that had been
"crossed"  with a brazil nut. 

The most serious case of genetic engineering gone wrong reliably
documented in medical literature involves, paradoxically, a health-food
supplement called L-tryptophan, a "naturally occurring" amino acid, which
was promoted in the 1980s as a treatment for insomnia and depression. In
1989 health authorities in Australia and around the world warned people to
stop taking it after it was linked to the deaths of 36 people and the
crippling of another 1,500 by a completely new blood disease called EMS. 

Investigators discovered that the cases were caused by contaminants in one
particular batch of L-tryptophan which had been manufactured in Japan by
the Showa Denko corporation using a newly modified strain of genetically
engineered bacteria. The epidemic stopped when the product was taken off
the market, and the inevitable lawsuits ensued. 

Evidence of the potential for the new genetically engineered plants to
damage the delicately balanced biosphere on which we depend is even more
convincing. Attempts to "improve" the soil with GM bacteria have backfired
on several occasions, most catastrophically when a bacterium designed with
the highly desirable quality of "eating" residues of the toxic weedicide
2,4-D produced a by-product that killed all the essential natural bacteria
in the soil. 

Most of the genetic modifications approved so far involve "inoculating" 
food plants with alien genes to make them either immune to insect attack,
or impervious to herbicides which would normally kill them. The danger
here is that new breeds of poison-resistant insects will emerge, and that
the plants will cross-pollinate with native species to produce unkillable

In Australia this would be particularly serious because we are among the
world's heaviest users of agricultural chemicals. The use of glyphosate (a
predict developed by Monsanto that it sells here as Roundup) has been
widely promoted as an "environmentally friendly" alternative to ploughing
because it kills weeds without the loss of topsoil to erosion. 

Few were surprised when, on a farm near Echuca in Victoria two years ago,
Professor Jim Pratley, an agronomist at Charles Sturt University,
identified the world's first glyphosate- resistant weed, a type of
rye-grass that is a serious pest to farmers. 

Though Pratley denies that this was a "superweed", the precautions to
eradicate it were like a scene from Outbreak. Monsanto and the NSW
Agriculture Department flew experts in, the paddock was cordoned off for
three or four hectares around the patch of mutant grass, the barley that
was harvested nearby was not allowed off the property for fear it might be
contaminated with seeds of the rye-grass, the paddock was ploughed and the
weed eliminated, for now. 

To guard against the emergence of Bt-tolerant "superbugs", cotton farmers
must set aside an area of "normal" crops to provide a refuge for insects,
and constantly collect eggs and larvae for laboratory study. 

Although none has been detected yet, there is worrying evidence of
another, unexpected, environmental hazard: genetically engineered crops
may be killing off the beneficial insects that are nature's way of
controlling pests. A study in Scotland found that the lifespan of
ladybirds, nature's best natural control of aphids, was cut in half, and
they laid fewer eggs, when they ate aphids which fed on genetically
engineered potatoes. 

It is bizarre in the extreme, say its critics, that something we are told
is safe to eat, oil from the seeds of Ingard cotton, is not approved by
any government agency as a foodstuff, but the plant is registered by the
National Registration Authority for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals
as a pesticide. Bon appetit.  THERE is one final concern about the new
technology that has united farmers and green groups, and that is the fear
that powerful multinational corporations, most of them based in the US,
may come to control the food supply by patenting the fruits, vegetables
and even animals that mankind has freely used for thousands of years. 

Since 1985, when US courts ruled that genetic material could be patented,
these corporations have been prospecting the world for plants and animals
they can "improve". This has been described by critics such as Greenpeace
as a modern-day colonial land grab, with the target not the soil but the
seeds that are the common heritage of mankind. 

The agri/food industry has mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign to
promote what it sees as the benefits of this new technology, particularly
to the developing world. Monsanto's publicity kit features grateful
African farmers with bigger bunches of bananas, and growers in Thailand
beaming over virus-free pawpaws. 

Suman Sahai, the New Delhi convener of Gene Campaign, an
industry-supported lobby, dismisses ethical concerns over genetic
engineering as a luxury only industrialised countries can afford, and asks
which would be more unethical, interfering with "God's work" or allowing
the hungry to die. 

Mitchell Hooke declares that the world will need to increase its food
supply 75per cent by 2025 if it is to feed an expected increase in
population from 6billion to more than 8billion. He says that encouraging
higher-yielding, pest- and disease-resistant crops is the most important
thing governments can do to protect the environment. 

Carol Renouf, a policy officer at the 160,000-member Australian Consumers'
Association who has spent two years studying the issue, believes, however,
that what is at stake is really control of the global food supply: "Five
or six multi nationals have invested billions in this technology over the
past 15 or 20 years and are pushing it for all it's worth ... governments
everywhere have been caught on the back foot." 

Monsanto, now the world-dominating Microsoft of genetic engineering, is a
good case in point. Last year it completed its transition from chemical
company to "life sciences corporation", having invested more than
$US2billion ($3.2billion) in genetic engineering, and having taken over
six other bio-tech companies in a breathless expansion that took its
market capitalisation from $US6billion to $US35billion in five years. 

With US patent rights to its blockbuster weedkiller glyphosate, one of the
biggest sellers in the world's $US8billion-a-year market for agricultural
chemicals, running out in 2000, it faced financial disaster. Its new
business is seeds, altering and patenting the genetic code to the
foodstuffs that have sustained mankind since agriculture began on the
plains of the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago. 

This worries horticulturalists such as Clive Blazey, who runs the Diggers'
Club seed business from a property on the Mornington Peninsula, south of
Melbourne. The club has 35,000 members, all committed to preserving
biodiversity, conserving heritage varieties, and propagating "open
pollinated" plants whose seed can be saved and grown. 

Blazey is particularly concerned by Monsanto's recent acquisition of
technology that will enable it to insert a "terminator gene" into plants,
rendering their seeds sterile. 

"This new technology gives Monsanto, with support from the US Government,
its best chance of dominance of world agriculture," he thundered in a
recent newsletter. "For Third World farmers it could be a new form of
slavery ... for biodiversity it could be like the Holocaust. Instead of
thousands of varieties of locally adapted rice or wheat being planted
worldwide, mass marketing would reduce the strains to a few only." 
ALTHOUGH GM food products have been on supermarket shelves in Australia
for two years, the first six to be formally vetted for sale are not
expected to be approved until later this month, 15 years after a country
such as Canada introduced regulations. An organisation called the
Australia and New Zealand Food Authority, a body of scientists and
bureaucrats with three food industry figures on its board, will decide
what is safe for us to eat. 

All six crops are owned by Monsanto, varieties of cotton and corn which
carry the Bt gene, and soya beans, corn, canola and cotton which are
immune to glyphosate. They will (retrospectively) be allowed to be
imported and sold, but none, under rules expected to be endorsed by State
and national health ministers meeting in Canberra next week, will be
required to carry a label identifying them as genetically altered. 

The ANZFA's program manager for food products, Dr Simon Brooke-Taylor,
concedes: "We sat on the fence or crossed our legs for a while." Critics
such as Carol Renouf believe that the food industry, which opposes
labelling, has been able to "capture" the regulator and dictate its own

Mitchell Hooke dismisses moves for labelling as "a clever campaign that is
trying to scare the shit out of people". He insists that there is no need
to label products such as Monsanto's soya or corn because they are almost
identical to the "natural" products, the esoteric doctrine of "substantial
equivalence" that will be the basis of the Australian legislation that
comes into force in May. 

The real reason, however, seems to stem from a fear that consumers would
distrust the new and unknown. The food industry is still smarting from its
failure to persuade people that irradiation was a safe method of
prolonging the shelf life of fresh food, consumer groups overseas forced
governments to label such food, then refused to buy it. 

Unless frantic last-minute lobbying efforts are successful, Renouf says,
only 1 or 2per cent of the genetically engineered foodstuffs sold in
Australia would have to be labelled. Soya beans, corn, oils and so on
would be out, and the only foods required to be labelled would be
"substantially different" products such as Monsanto's renowned flop, the
Flavr Savr tomato, now back on the drawing board because consumers didn't
like the price, or the taste. 

And that is even though a Federal Government-commissioned poll in 1995
found that although 61per cent of Australians would be willing to try
genetically modified food, 89per cent thought they had the right to know
what they were eating, they wanted all such food to be labelled.  IN the
absence of any regulations, other than the blanket provisions of the
various State health acts requiring food offered for sale to be wholesome,
no-one, including the manufacturer, knows for sure the genetic status of
any grocery item. Even Hooke admits that "we wouldn't have a bloody clue" 
which products on sale now already contain GM food, and he says that there
is no scientific test that can distinguish between many products, such as
vegetable oils. 

GM soya beans, for instance, which this year accounted for about 30per
cent of the North American crop, appear to have first entered Australia
unannounced two years ago as raw ingredients for processing, and in
manufactured products. Soya derivatives are used in an extraordinary range
of edibles, from bread to biscuits, cake-mix to cheese, cooking oil to
chocolate topping. 

Even baby food. Earlier this year, Bob Phelps, convener of the Australian
GeneEthics Network  an alliance of anti-genetic engineering groups under
the wing of the Australian Conservation Foundation, tested infant formulas
bought at random from a suburban supermarket in Melbourne. Of the eight
analysed, two were found to contain Monsanto's genetically modified soya

The reaction from Heinz, one of the two manufacturers, was mildly
schizophrenic. On the one hand, insists the company's spokesman, Glenda
Orland: "We stand by the product. It is absolutely safe, otherwise we
would not be feeding it to babies." 

But on the other hand, the company has announced that, in Australia and in
Europe, but not in the US, where consumers appear to be less concerned, it
will no longer use GM food in any of its products. Heinz did not want to
offer consumers a choice through labelling, Orland said, because "the fear
is that if Mrs Jones from Blackburn reads that it is genetically modified,
she will just freak out and won't buy the product any more." 

Other GM foods already on sale here, unannounced, include cottonseed-oil
products, beer and bread (which may be made with engineered enzymes) and
cheese. Choice magazine analysed 20 supermarket brands of "cheddar" cheese
two years ago and found that five had been made with genetically
engineered rennet, a coagulating agent traditionally extracted from
calves' stomachs. 

Unlike Heinz, Sanitarium, which is proud of its reputation as a "health
food company", says it is impossible to sort out the "gene beans" it
imports from the US from the old-fashioned kind, so its products may or
may not contain any. 

And to add to the confusion, some manufacturers say that they won't touch
genetically engineered food with a barge pole. Gil Hassin, managing
director of the Australian Natural Foods company, which has a
$16million-a-year turnover, is one. Hassin believed his customers were so
concerned that he became the first manufacturer to use a "GM-free" label
on a product -- his top-of-the-line "So Natural" brand of soya milk, which
has become the fastest-growing in the country. 

"There is absolutely no benefit nutritionally [in GM beans] and we are not
satisfied it has been properly tested on humans. We are being used as
guinea pigs," he says. "Look at Thalidomide, they didn't know about its
dangers until they saw the second and third generation [of birth
deformities]."    CONSUMERS who don't swallow the industry's assurances
that GM food is safe have two options. They can shop in "health food"
stores, or buy produce that has been certified as "organic" or "biodynamic"
under the rules of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

So far, Australia's supermarkets are lining up behind the food
manufacturers and insisting there is no need for labelling. This is unlike
in Europe, where some chains have banned GM food and others insist on
labelling, the famously consumer-conscious British chain Sainsburys, for
instance, labelled its "own brand" tomato paste and found to its surprise
that its customers actually preferred the genetically engineered paste to
the real thing.

The arguments of the Australian food industry against giving consumers this
sort of choice will be familiar to those who remember its opposition to the
introduction of date-stamping, listing ingredients on labels, or any other
consumer safeguard: you can trust us to make sure your food is safe,
labelling would just mislead the consumer, it would be impossible to
police, some packages would not have enough room for the extra wording.

None of this persuades Australia's booming health-food retailers, some of
them large chains, which are estimated to control 5per cent of the national
food market. All said they had banned genetically modified food from their
shelves. Paul Bryden, technical manager of the Nutritional Foods
Association of Australia, went one further, his members, he said, would not
even stock shampoo and conditioner made with lecithin extracted from "gene

As far as fresh food is concerned, if it's labelled "organic" it can't be
grown from genetically modified seed, and that's the law. While one
government agency (the ANZFA) is insisting that there is really no
difference between GM and non-GM food, another (the AQIS) is telling
growers and retailers there really is.

Judith Moore is executive officer of Biological Farmers of Australia, the
country's largest certification agency, which guarantees the produce of
many of the 2,000 growers in the organic food industry. She said: "The view
worldwide is that food should be organic and natural, and genetically
manipulated product can never be considered that."

She said that if growers did not abide by the six-year-old AQIS ban, it
would endanger a small but rapidly growing export industry in organic
produce such as fresh fruit and vegetables for Singapore, orange juice, and
bulk grains grown without the use of agricultural chemicals.

Nor are Sydney's grands chefs planning to experiment with gene cuisine.
Christine Manfield, of the highly regarded Paramount restaurant in Potts
Point, reflected the views of many when she said: "We try to use organic
produce wherever we can. We pay a premium to get away from all those nasty
elements which have insidiously snuck into the food chain, whether it's
genetic engineering or those horrible battery chickens full of hormones and

So where does this leave growers such as Peter Corish? He says Monsanto has
dropped its price a bit and he will persevere with his pioneering cotton,
though with a bit less enthusiasm.


NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is
distributed without profit to those who expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.


Bob Phelps
Australian GeneEthics Network
c/- ACF 340 Gore Street, Fitzroy. 3065 Australia
Tel: (03) 9416.2222 Fax: (03) 9416.0767 {Int Code (613)}