GE - GEN3-24 UK NLP GE news summary
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- Date: Fri, 26 Mar 1999 01:44:24 +0000
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The following summary was prepared by the Natural Law Party UK press
office <firstname.lastname@example.org> in response to numerous requests for
information on the recent surge of public interest in the UK on the topic
of GM foods.
GM foods debate takes centre stage in the UK
Summary of recent developments, March 1999
In the first three months of 1999 public debate about GM foods has taken
centre stage in Britain. Everyone in the country who follows the news knows
about the risks of GM foods and the issues surrounding them, while opinion
polls show that the great majority of the population do not want them.
The Natural Law Party can take much credit for this situation. It has been
publicising the risks of GM foods since 1996 and was the first organisation
in the UK to call for an outright ban. Its fact sheet on the dangers of GM
foods, first produced in 1996, has been used by many other organisations
and members of the public unconnected with the party. The Natural Law Party
is widely acknowledged as having given impetus to the debate on GM foods
and acted as a catalyst for other organisations. It was the Natural Law
Party that announced to the press in September 1996 that GM soya had been
passed for use in the UK, that the first shipment from the USA was due the
next month, and that since it would be unsegregated from non-GM soya it
could be included in up to 60% of processed foods in the UK, without being
labelled. The Natural Law Party has since then consistently been involved
in raising public awareness of this issue.
Events of 1999
This year GM foods came dramatically to public attention in late January
1999 with the publication of a statement signed by 126 influential food
writers and journalists, condemning the use of GM foods. This initiative
was promoted by the environmental organisation Greenpeace.
One week later, GM foods again came to the fore suddenly in a parliamentary
debate on 3rd February. Joan Walley, an MP from the governing Labour Party
(but not herself a minister in the government), voiced her concerns about
GM foods and the tactics of the biotechnology industry. She told the House
about the tryptophan incident in the USA, in which 37 died and 1500 were
permanently disabled after eating a food supplement produced by GM
bacteria. Her concerns were shared by MPs from all parties who spoke that
day, apart from the government minister responsible. The same afternoon,
the leader of the Opposition, William Hague, challenged the Prime Minister
over GM foods, and asked him why he did not impose a three-year moratorium
on the commercial release of GM crops as the government had been advised to
do by English Nature, an official advisory organisation.
During the week that followed, three major national newspapers started
campaigns to inform the public about the risks of genetically modified
food. Two of these declared themselves in favour of a ban or a moratorium.
The phrase 'Frankenstein foods' is now being used widely by all popular
newspapers (a reference to the fictional scientist Frankenstein who set out
to create a human being but ended up with a monster that he could not
The controversy surrounding Dr Arpad Pusztai's findings
On 12 February the debate went into a higher gear when a press conference
was held in the House of Commons announcing that 20 internationally
acclaimed scientists supported the findings of Dr Arpad Pusztai, a
geneticist working at a government laboratory in Scotland who the previous
year had unexpectedly discovered that rats who were fed GM potatoes
incurred significant damage to the immune system and reduced organ growth.
Dr Pusztai, who worked in the government-funded Rowett Institute in
Aberdeen, had spoken about his findings, which were preliminary but
significant, in a television interview in August 1998. Within a few days,
his contract with the Institute was discontinued and he was forbidden to
speak about his findings. The head of the Institute who had initially
supported Dr Pusztai, now claimed he had muddled the data.
Dr Pusztai's findings, although still preliminary, clearly illustrate the
risks of GM food. The potatoes he was testing had had a gene for a
particular natural insecticide inserted - a protein known as lectin,
produced by a flower (the snowdrop). Dr Pusztai has published over 200
papers on lectin, and has a world reputation. The rats who ate potato mixed
together with lectin suffered no ill effects. But the rats who ate the
potatoes into which the lectin had been genetically engineered, became ill.
Dr Pusztai sums up the situation as follows: two harmless substances,
potato and lectin, were found to become toxic after genetic modification.
Dr. Pusztai is the first world renowned scientist whose research findings
question the use of genetic engineering as a whole, and it is significant
that he is at heart not an opponent of genetic engineering. His experiment
had not been done to see if the potatoes were safe as human food, but to
devise a way of testing for safety in general, as part of a project set up
by the government. The findings surprised Dr Pusztai as much as anyone
else: 'I was totally taken aback,' he told the press. 'I was absolutely
confident that I would not find anything, but the longer I spent on the
experiment the more uneasy I became. I believe in the technology. But it is
too new for us to be absolutely sure that what we are doing is right.'
Government on the defensive
The result of these developments was astonishing. GM foods now became
front-page news almost every day. There were numerous television and radio
debates, chat shows, phone-ins etc., all over the country, telephone polls
by newspapers and other organisations.
The Government became on the defensive, following widespread criticism of
its pro-GM stance and the easy access the biotech lobby has to government
departments. The Minister of Science in charge of biotechnology, Lord
Sainsbury, and members of approval committees have all been shown to have
strong links to biotech companies. There were repeated calls for Lord
Sainsbury to resign.
A report appeared in the newspapers that Prince Charles, who has spoken out
strongly against GM food several times in the past two years, had been
requested by the government to remove a page from his own Internet web site
inviting people's comments on GM food. Most newspapers were very critical
of the Government position on GM foods, pointing out that they were
completely out of tune with the population.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister himself, Tony Blair, was accused of having
been pressured by President Clinton to allow the American giant
biotechnology company Monsanto to operate unimpeded in Britain. In an
attempt to quell public concern, Blair announced that he himself would be
happy to eat GM foods and insisted that he would not halt or slow down the
introduction of GM foods.
The following day Blair was featured on the front page of the popular
tabloid (Labour!) newspaper The Mirror as a Frankenstein monster, with the
caption 'The Prime Monster'. Greenpeace dumped 4 tons of GM soya outside
the gates of No 10 Downing Street, the Prime Ministers residence, declaring
that this was the only address in the country where the resident actually
wanted to eat GM food! The Prime Minister's response was to defend GM foods
even more strongly.
New research findings add fuel to the debate
While all this was going on, more research continued to come to light on
the risks of GM crops and foods.
A study by Europe's leading specialists on food sensitivity, the York
Nutritional Laboratory in northern England, found that allergy and
digestion problems caused by soya had increased significantly in the past
two year, rising from 14th to 9th place in the list of leading allergens.
As this period coincided with the widespread introduction of GM soya into
processed foods, researchers at the Laboratory felt that these findings
raised serious new questions about the safety of GM foods.
Government studies at the Scottish Crop Institute showed dangers to
insects. Genetically modified potato plants were fed to aphids which were
in turn fed to ladybirds. The ladybirds' lives were shortened by up to half
the expected life-span, and their fertility and egg-laying was
The National Pollen Research Unit released a study commissioned by the Soil
Association - the organisation in Britain which certifies food as organic -
showing that GM pollen could travel hundreds of miles and cross pollinate
with non-GM strains. This finding, obvious to anyone with common sense,
highlighted the inadequacy of present government regulations which
stipulate that 200 metres is far enough to avoid cross-pollination between
GM crops and neighbouring fields.
Newspaper reports claimed that the British Diabetic Association, whose role
is to protect the interests of diabetic patients, had withheld evidence
that some patients who were fed GM insulin suffered a deterioration in
Shift in public opinion reflected in policy changes by large organisations
Bowing to pressure from public opinion, seven of the eight major
supermarket chains have now changed their policy on GM foods, five of them
imposing a complete ban on GM ingredients in their own-brand products, and
all of them insisting on better labelling in their stores. These stores
include Sainsbury's, owned by the family of the Science Minister Lord
Sainsbury, and Asda, which is owned by the Conservative MP Archie Norman.
One of the supermarkets is Marks and Spencer, which has stores throughout
Europe and which sells no products other than its own brands; in other
words, the store will be entirely free of GM products. A precedent was set
last year by Iceland, the biggest retailer of frozen foods, which banned GM
foods from its own-brand products after receiving hundreds of letters from
the public, many of them written by supporters of the Natural Law Party.
British Sugar, the national producer and processor of sugar beet, is
refusing to use GM beet and has no plans to use GM materials. A spokesman
for Novartis, a biotechnology company, said the company was unwilling to
push ahead with commercial growing of GM crops without more evidence of the
impact on the environment.
In response to consumer demand in Britain and elsewhere, the US giant
miller and food processor Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has announced a new
'identity-preserved' programme for its soya protein products based on
segregation of non-GM soya beans. This move away from GM soya by ADM, which
describes itself as 'Supermarket to the World', marks a significant shift
away from the position maintained up to now by Monsanto and other biotech
companies in the USA that it was not possible to segregate GM and non-GM
The Local Government Association, an advisory body to the 500 local and
regional authorities in Britain, recommended in February that all of them
should impose a five-year ban on the use of GM foods in their institutions,
including schools, retirement homes and child-care homes, and meal services
for the elderly and disabled. Many local authorities have already stopped
using GM foods.
The Consumer Association, which seeks to represent the interests of
consumers and has so far focused mainly on the need for better labelling of
GM foods, has recently issued a statement calling for no more GM foods to
be introduced until the government's approval system addresses concerns
about the long-term safety of genetically modified foods.
The prestigious Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has warned
that farmers planting genetically modified crops risk a fall in land values
and has called for a national register to be established showing all fields
where GM crops have been grown.
The Soil Association, the organisation for organic farmers, which normally
receives about 1000 inquiries per year from farmers wishing to change from
intensive chemical farming, suddenly received over 100 requests in one
week. One of the logical results of inadequate labelling of GM foods is
that the only way to avoid them is to eat organic food. This fact has not
been lost on the press and the general public.
In March, in response to increasing public and scientific concern about Dr
Pusztai's findings, the government set up a special parliamentary hearing
to look into the implications of his experiment and the circumstances
surrounding his subsequent dismissal. This too was reported widely in the
The government itself has moved significantly, although it has officially
not abandoned its pro-GM stance. In March Lord Sainsbury surprised everyone
by suggesting a three-year freeze on the commercial growing of GM crops,
though the government subsequently denied that this was official policy.
The government's official position is that there is a moratorium on the
commercial growing of GM crops until spring 2000.
The demand for organic produce in Britain has far outstripped the supply,
with the result that 70% of organic food has to be imported from abroad. In
response to this, the government has announced is going to double its
subsidies to British farmers who wish to convert to organic farming. The
government is also setting up a fully independent Food Standards Agency in
order to protect consumers' interests. The result will be that food safety
issues will be kept separate from the Ministry of Agriculture, which is
perceived as representing more the commercial interests of farmers and the
biotechnology industry than those of consumers.
Natural Law Party's role
During the recent surge in publicity, the Natural Law Party has spoken on
local and national radio, spoken to MPs including leaders of other parties,
and written to newspapers. This month (March 1999) the Natural Law Party
released a video on the dangers of GM foods, with contributions from
genetics scientist Dr Michael Antoniou, director of the Soil Association
Patrick Holden who is one Britain's most respected environmentalists,
health food wholesaler Craig Sams, and Dr Geoffrey Clements and Dr
Reinhard Borowitz, leaders of the Natural Law Party respectively in the UK
Natural Law Party leader Dr Geoffrey Clements was invited to speak at one
of a special series of conferences on genetic engineering organised by
students at the University of London, on a panel with distinguished
scientists including Nobel Peace Prize winner Sir Joseph Rotblad.
On 8 March in the Houses of Parliament, the Natural Law Party held a
scientific briefing for MPs on GM food, resulting in an invitation to meet
regularly and share further ideas with some of the MPs present. One of
those MPs was David Drew, who had recently spoken at a rally organised in
Stroud (in the West of England) by Dr Henry Brighouse, the Natural Law
Party representative in that area, in conjunction with other groups. The
rally has led to a widely supported campaign for a GM-free Stroud.
In addition to this formal briefing, Natural Law Party candidates and
supporters have been writing and speaking to MPs individually throughout
the past three years on the risks of GM food, as well as informing the
public as a whole.
The following are just a sample of the numerous articles from national
Selection of front page items:-
Alarm over Frankenstein foods. (Daily Telegraph 12.2.99)
Food scandal exposed (The Guardian 12.2.99)
Schools act to wipe GM foods off menu (Daily Mail 24.2.99)
Frankenstein Food Fiasco (Daily Mail 13.2.99)
We will ban GM crops if dangerous, say Ministers (Daily Telegraph 19.2.99)
Charles defies Blair on GM foods (Daily Express 21.2.99)
Is baby food really safe - new GM shock (Daily Express 17.2.99)
Safety fears at 70 crop test sites (Daily Mail 16.2.99)
GM foods: How Blair ignored our top scientists (Daily Mail 18.2.99)
Human genes in GM food (Daily Express)
Frankenstein food retreat (Daily Mail 17.2.99)
New study shows gene crops may poison ladybird (Guardian 4.3.99)
Gene Lab Took Food Giant's Cash (Daily Mail)
GM food row splits Labour (Guardian 15.2.99)
'Labour pays GM giants to expand in UK (Independent on Sunday)
Is this the most arrogant Cabinet in history? (Sun 22.2.99)
The Prime Monster (The Mirror, 16.2.99)
Labour pays GM giants to expand in UK (Independent)
Shops in fear of GM foods (Daily Express 13.2.99)
Blair is wrong on GM food (Independent 21.2.99)
Shoppers Give Thumbs Down To GM Foods (Press Association 22.2.99)
Zac Goldsmith: Why I believe tampering with nature
gave my father his cancer (Daily Mail 23.2.99)
GM foods to be taken off menu in schools (Guardian 25.2.99)
Monsanto ads condemned (Guardian 1.3.99)
Third world rejects GM (Independent 1.3.99)
Organic food sales enjoy sales boom (Independent 8.3.99)
Gene crops could spell extinction for birds (Observer 21.2.99)
GM foods - Revealed: false data misled farmers (Independent 21.2 .99)
Genetic minister 'should be axed' (Guardian 16.2.99)
Shoppers are kept in the dark (Daily Mail 6.2.99)
Scourge of the Terminator gene (Express 15.2.99)
Doctor destroyed for being right (Daily Mail 13.2.99)
Remember mad cow disease warns Professor (Daily Mail 13.2.99)
Hidden perils of GM foods we eat (Mail on Sunday 14.2.99)
Are we at risk from mutant make-up? (Sunday Express 21.2.99)
Stop the crops (Guardian 13.2.99)
Top chefs in battle to keep Frankenstein foods off the menu (Express
Top firms face share blacklist over GM foods (Mail on Sunday 21.2.99)
Asda outlaws GM foods (Daily Mail 8.3.99)
Minister blackened my name says doctor' (Pusztai) (Express)
A nasty taste at Mr. Blair's table (Daily Mail)
Diabetics not told of GM insulin risk (Guardian 9.3.99)
GM Soya is a hidden destroyer (Daily Mail 12.3.99)
Farmers warned of blow to land prices (Daily Mail 12.3.99)
We are labelled the devil says Monsanto (Daily Mail 11.3.99)
Secret deal will ban GM crops until 2002 (Independent on Sunday 14.2.99)
Stop GM Foods - Scientists find banned soya in UK products (Independent on
Mentmore Towers, Mentmore, Buckinghamshire, LU7 0QH,
UK Press Office: 44+ (0) 1296 662866
Fax: 44+ (0) 1296-662124
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Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
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