"geneticall manipulated" menu from London INDEPENDENT
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- Date: Sun, 7 Feb 1999 11:11:10 -0800 (PST)
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The second piece below is by Joanna Blythman, author of last Sunday's
"OBSERVER" item on the topic of Brit. Chefs not wanting genetically
INDEPENDENT Sunday Feb 7
Modified crops 'out of control'
By Marie Woolf, Political Correspondent
THE MINISTRY of Agriculture has privately admitted that it has no idea how
many genetically modified (GM) crops are being used in animal feed,
despite warnings from its own advisers that this could lead to the
creation of "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics.
A confidential briefing note from civil servants to Food Safety Minister,
Jeff Rooker, seen by the Independent on Sunday, says: "It is not possible
to know the extent to which GM material is being used in animal feed in
On top of this, the Government also intends to give its approval for US
company Monsanto to sell GM cotton to animal food producers throughout
Europe, in a crucial Brussels vote this week, despite further warnings
A letter written last week by Dr Paul Burrows, head of biotechnology
controls at the Department of the Environment, says: "[The UK] will be
content with these products [GM Cotton] in terms of safety to the UK
environment but will still have reservations about their use in animal
feed due to the antibiotic resistance marker genes." Some GM crops which
could be in the feed have been manipulated by scientists to be resistant
to antibiotics. Scientists and environmental campaigners fear that the
antibiotic resistance could be passed to animals, then the humans who eat
them. Civil servants have warned it could create bacteria immune to
It was fears of just such a superbug which led Brussels, with UK
government backing, to recently ban five antibiotics used to treat
animals. Recent random tests in Worcester showed that GM crops have been
creeping into the animal foods from America, where they are not grown
separately from ordinary plants. Food campaigners want nationwide tests to
discover the extent of the problem.
The revelations will shock farmers who have been seeking reassurances from
ministers about GM crops in animal food, following the BSE crisis. At
present, there is no legal requirement for animal feed which contains
genetically altered material to be labelled, so there is no way of knowing
how much of it is being fed to cows, pigs and chickens. Following the
outcry from farmers over BSE, the Ministry of Agriculture set up a
committee of experts on animal foodstuffs. Its remit has now been widened
to cover use of GM crops in animal food.
"This is the first time something like this has been proposed," said Dr
Ricarda Steinbrecher, a geneticist conducting the research. "The
Government is making decisions in an almost improvisational manner."
GM foods - Why we must end this now
Joanna Blythman warns of the catastrophe that scientists could unleash on
Genetically engineered foods are the biggest threat in history to the
safety and integrity of our food chain. Yet there is a good chance you
just ate them for breakfast.
Genetically manipulated ingredients are turning up, unlabelled, in
everyday items such as bread, cornflakes and margarine, despite every
indicator of public opinion showing that we don't want them.
Such products are the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. They represent
the initial applications of a new, unpredictable technology which when it
goes wrong - and it already has - could have catastrophic, irreversible
Despite the biotech industry's clumsy attempts to portray genetic
manipulations of our foods as natural, unthreatening extensions of natural
breeding and "improving" techniques, the truth is that gene technology is
being used to create huge, accelerated changes in food that could never
occur naturally. This offers big business the prospect of mixing and
matching genes to create new, profitable food "constructions", even to the
extent of swapping genetic material across species barriers.
But nature is a beautifully organised and complex system. When we start
tinkering with that even the cleverest geneticists cannot predict the
Once altered genes are released into the environment, there is no way of
recalling them or predicting what changes they might trigger. New-variant
CJD - the human BSE - can theoretically be eradicated in time. When
genetic manipulations of our food go wrong, we will need to live with them
The new gene food revolution is being brought to us by the same
profit-driven corporations that gave us pesticides and drugs to prop up
the miserable conditions of factory-farm animals. The text remains the
same. Only this time it is gene foods that are going to give us better
food and save the world from hunger.
We have every right to be cynical. Far from feeding the world, genetic
manipulation of the food we eat will simply tie up control of food
production - right down to seeds - in their hands. You can forget about
organic food, too. Released into the environment, altered genes can end up
Gene foods are being foisted on British consumers against our will. A
clear majority wants them banned, a call backed by the Conservatives. Yet,
only last week, Tony Blair showed how cosy he has become with the biotech
industry by dismissing this as based on "prejudice", and preferring to
take "best scientific advice" from the same discredited committees and
civil servants - wined and dined by the Monsantos of the world - who got
it so spectacularly wrong with BSE.
Is this just stupidity? Mr Blair's gene food expert, Jeff Rooker, the Food
minister, has already shown himself to be out of his depth. He assures us
that gene foods are strictly tested before being released on the market
and tells us there are only four foods on the market anyway, so what's the
fuss? The truth is that scientists cannot even agree how you can test for
safety, because the ramifications of genetic manipulation of foods are so
far-reaching, and genetically manipulated ingredients are now in at least
60 per cent of processed foods. Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture,
says he will get tough and make sure gene foods are all labelled. Come off
it. We already know they aren't.
At best, labelling is a token gesture towards informing consumers. Once
altered genes are released into the environment, any link in the food
chain can be affected.
The Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, who seems to be dictating the
Government's gene food policy, has huge commercial interests in the
biotech industry as well as being a financial backer of the Labour Party.
We know through leaks that the Department of Health has already asked
supermarkets to give it confidential information, gained from loyalty
cards, so it can monitor any adverse health effects in shoppers who eat
genetically engineered food.
Indeed, it seems desperate to force gene foods down our throats - even to
the extent of making government propaganda films in supermarkets.
We are in an extremely frightening situation. Huge risks are being taken
with our precious food chain by corporations that will play fast and loose
with the environment and public health to line their pockets. Our would-be
defenders are in bed with them.
It's down to us to use every consumer trick in the book to call a halt to
gene foods now. If we push hard enough, we can make that happen.
JOANNA BLYTHMAN is a specialist food journalist and author of 'The Food We
Eat' (Penguin, #6.99)
GM foods - what does it mean? how is it done? is it safe?
Q What does it mean if a food or crop is genetically modified?
A That the DNA in its cells has been altered to add genes from other
organisms, such as bacteria, other plants or even animals. (The
"antifreeze" genes that fish produce has been added in experiments to some
plants, though none is on sale.)
Q How is it done?
A Either by using a naturally occurring plant virus to "infect" the target
plant with the new genes, or by literally firing the extra DNA on tiny
gold beads into the cell nucleus, where the DNA resides. Neither method is
precise, but once the new genes have been successfully added, the cell can
be multiplied to produce a brand new plant that nature could not have.
This does not, however, make it a "mutant": those are naturally occurring.
Q Is the controversy about how genetically modified foods might affect us
if we eat them, or about how genetically modified crops might affect the
environment while they are growing?
Q What's the difference between genetically modified, genetically
engineered and transgenic?
A None - they are synonyms.
Q What are the main ways in which plants are currently genetically
A For eating, they can be modified to last longer, look different or taste
better. But for growing, they can be modified to be tolerant of large
amounts of powerful weedkillers and insecticides which would otherwise
kill them. That potentially means increased productivity.
Q What are the fears arising from these modifications?
A For foods, that we might swallow something with genes which could behave
unpredictably - for example, somehow mixing with bacteria in our stomach
to produce a strange new organism. DNA has a half-life of about 10 minutes
in the stomach, so some of those fears have a basis in fact. But
processing, such as turning a crop into oil, destroys the DNA. For
growing, the worry is that the powerful pesticides will kill everything
else in and around the field, such as wildflowers and insects, and thus
the bird life which depends on the seeds and grubs. The genes for
pesticide resistance might also cross into wild plants, creating an "arms
race" in that more, rather than fewer, pesticides have to be used to
Q What sort of food is currently genetically modified?
A You can buy tomato puree made from tomatoes modified to stay fresh
longer. Some vegetarian cheeses are made with genetically modified
bacteria, which carry out the same function as rennet, the animal protein.
But many breads, biscuits, cakes and other foods may contain traces of
modified soya: about 30 per cent of the soya beans grown in the US, the
world's major producer, are modified to be resistant to a particular
Q Why doesn't the Prime Minister back a moratorium on the commercial
growing of GM crops, if the Government's official adviser, English Nature,
A We do not know. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, he took the
line that ministers in trouble often do, which is that they are "following
the best scientific advice". The problem is that on this topic, the
advisers are divided. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the
Environment (Acre) thinks no moratorium is needed; English Nature does.
Q If GM crops are so safe, why do they need all these planting trials and
so many regulations?
A Because of scientists' worries that cross-pollination with wild plants
will lead to the new genes spreading uncontrollably.
Q Will they?
A Nobody knows for sure.
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