GENTECH archive


More OBSERVER on genetically manipulated food

 Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

'The right of consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM food should be


The furore over genetically modified food during the past week has
generated heat and no light. But it seems clear there are dangers to the
environment and possibly to individual health. Multinationals based in the
United States - notably Monsanto - have been too quick to press the
advantages of GM food given the level of knowledge and the suspicions of
consumers. The US government has put American farming profits before
public health in a vast, uncontrolled global experiment.

On the other hand GM food products could be a great boon. Genetic
modification could raise the nutritional content of food, offer better
insect resistance for some crops and some, too, can be modified to last
longer after harvesting. The question is whether these advantages are
offset by the risks. The onus is on those who want to sell GM food to
prove it is safe, not the other way around. Requiring that GM food should
be labelled - which the Government is expecting to announce next week - is
the least it could do, given the degree of public concern. Some scientists
may regard that response as excessive and whipped up by hysterical
reporting, but the right of consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM
food should be respected.

Even this concession will be contested by the Americans, in part because
they mix up GM and non-GM food for export so that disentangling GM food
for labelling now is next to impossible.

The British Government must be resolute. The US has brought this upon
itself by trying to impose its own standards on the rest of the world.
Within the European Union there is no commercial production of GM food,
and the US should be reminded that British food buyers always have the
option of buying European products if American companies do not comply
with British law. The time has come to be tough, and until genetic
modification is proved safe, to respect the anxieties of consumers in

 Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

Shops warning ordered on gene food 

By Patrick Wintour, Antony Barnett and
Robin McKie 

Mandatory labelling of all genetically modified food sold in shops,
takeaways and restaurants is to be introduced next month in an attempt to
quell growing fear of the 'Frankenstein foods'. Firms breaking regulations
-- to be policed by local authorities and government scientists -- will
face tough fines. 'We are going to be ruthless in enforcing this,' Food
Minister Jeff Rooker told The Observer yesterday. 

But attempts to clean up the reputation of genetically modified (GM) foods
are likely to be undermined this week. Monsanto, the American firm
spearheading their production, is to admit illegally releasing modified
oil-seed rape into the environment. Campaigners fear such breaches could
lead to the creation of 'superweeds' resistant to herbicides.

They say the crop could pollinate nearby unmodified crops which might end
up in human food without the public knowing. A Monsanto spokesman said it
intended to plead guilty in a Lincolnshire court on Wednesday to breaking
environmental law. The company faces a fine of up to #20,000. The case
could not have come at worse moment for the GM food industry. Last week a
furore erupted over a controversial, unpublished study which, it was
claimed, links gene engineering practices to the development of immune
system problems in rats. Government scientists were accused of suppressing
the study, and the Government came under renewed pressure to introduce a
moratorium on the commercial growing of gene crops. Supermarkets attacked
Ministers for failing to create a system for labelling GM foods as fears
of a consumer boycott intensified. Apart from mandatory labelling, the
Cabinet Office -- under 'enforcer' Jack Cunningham -- will launch an
Whitehall review of the biotechnology sector.

The review will be completed in three months and may lead to a new body to
advise on the environmental implications of GM foods. Ministers are also
to promote a list of 59 US and Canadian firms that produce unmodified soya
and maize to help shoppers make informed choices about the food they buy.
Rooker warned Monsanto and the other big GM firms that they were provoking
a consumer backlash by mixing the production of GM and non-GM products.
Ministers say they are determined not to bow to pressure from
environmental groups and some newspapers, but they are worried that the
unrest could undermine Britain's growing biotechnology industry. 'The
Government is not going to be forced into a complete volte-face because of
this panic. We just have to get our message across.'

Monsanto's alleged breach of the existing controls arose last June at a
Government-licensed trial site in Lincolnshire. A routine inspection
revealed that control measures, required to prevent pollen from
herbicide-resistant oil seed rape spreading to nearby crops, had been
partly removed. As a result the entire site had to be destroyed, and any
seeds harvested over the next two years within a 50-yard radius of the
site will be destroyed.

'It was found that the pollen barrier surrounding the trial . . . was only
two yards wide on the trial site, rather than the required six yards,' say
minutes of the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the
Environment. A Monsanto spokesman said: 'We don't have direct control over
these trials. A third party conducts them.' 

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