12 February 2002
GM FOOD DISASTERS - OF MICE AND THE ROYAL SOCIETY
By Devinder Sharma
The first genetically modified (GM) food product to hit the market was a brand of tomato called "Flavr Savr". Before it was made available commercially in supermarkets, scientists had fed it to rodents in the laboratory. The rodents had refused to eat the GM tomatoes, which contained an alien gene to make it ripen more slowly. When force-fed, the rodents had fallen sick.
"Flavr Savr" was a commercial disaster. Since then, the rich and industrialised western countries, mainly the United States, have brought a score of genetically modified foods onto the market shelves. Ably backed by the powerful American propaganda machinery, we have been invariably told that these "novel foods" are no different from the conventional foods. And joining the deafening chorus is the "shouting brigade" - agricultural scientists, print and electronic media, bureaucrats and politicians - all desperately looking for financial support to survive in the era of fast shrinking public funding.
Such is the desperation for these finance seeking sectors of the "shouting brigade" that any voice that ultimately restricts their source of funding is met with a combined roar. It happened when the British scientist, Dr Arpad Pusztai, reported harmful effects in rats fed with GM potatoes. His independent research showed damage to the kidney, thymus, spleen and gut of young rats. Dr Pusztai not only lost his job but became a persona non grata for the entire scientific community. Several other researchers who ventured to question the veracity of scientific facts suffered on the career ladder. In fact, any criticism of the biotechnology industry’s "cutting-edge" technologies is met with sharp innuendoes and abuses. The basic objective being to run-down any opposition that may have a negative impact on the fortunes of the funding agencies.
Albert Einstein had once warned: "We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society." Great scientists have always had the foresight and vision to see where their own community can go wrong. Great scientists do not necessarily have to be educated at Berkeley, Harvard or Cambridge. And great scientists have always stood for "good science" and not "sound science" as advocated by the industry. Science is for the good of the humanity and cannot be compromised for the sake of profits that it can bring for the corporate world.
While the international scientific community spares no effort to brand GM food as "substantially equivalent" to conventional food, essentially to boost the sagging fortunes of the biotech industry, a 17-year-old Dutch undergraduate has created scientific history by his simple experiments of truth. He conclusively demonstrated that not everything endorsed by Nobel laureates and the so-called distinguished scientific bodies like Britain’s Royal Society is scientifically correct. Hinze Hogendoorn may not find a place of honour in the pro-GM stuffed Royal Society, but has surely put the distinguished scientific body to shame.
Following the basic scientific norms, Hinze too conducted his experiments on mice. He picked up 30 female six-week old mice from a herpetology centre. These mice were originally bred to feed snakes. And like every net-savvy teenager he too searched the web, this time on how to take care of mice. Based on what was spelled out, he bought some rodent mix and Kellogg’s and Quaker’s cereals and oatmeal that was specified to be "GM-free". This formed the staple diet for the mice. For GM foods, he used maize and soya.
The mice were let loose in big cages with the two piles of food - GM and non-GM - stacked in four bowls. The mice - obviously unaware of the virtues of genetically modified "functional foods" - gave their verdict. They completely emptied the bowls containing the non-GM food whereas the bowls with GM food remained untouched!
Hinze was still not satisfied. He conducted a series of other tests to find out what happens when the mice are force-fed with GM foods. Significantly, one mouse, which was fed with GM food, died for unknown reasons. While the others, which were fed on GM-diet, initially looked heavy but by the end of the experiment actually lost weight. The rival group of mouse that was on non-GM diet, ate less and gained more weight, and continued to gain weight. Equally more worrisome were the behavioural changes that the diet had induced in the mouse during the experiments. The GM-fed mice "seemed less active", "more nervous and distressed" and were completely at loss. "Many were running round and round the basket, scrabbling desperately in the sawdust, and even frantically jumping up the sides, something I'd never seen before," he was quoted as saying.
The Royal Society, however, refrains from commenting on Hinze’s experiments. To restore its losing credentials after the way it tried to doctrine the media to rubbish Arpad Pusztai’s experiments with rats, it has in the first week of February released a report on Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use and Human Health. Under pressure from the British and for that matter the European consumers who continue to question the scientific claims on food safety, the Royal Society has called for tougher regulations before GM food is passed as safe for human consumption. As a face saving device, it has drawn attention to the potential risks for babies, who are more susceptible to changes in the nutritional make-up of the food they eat.
Stating that consumption of genetically modified DNA has no effect on human health, as if the babies are not humans, the report is full of contradictions. But still, I wonder what the Royal Society would advise the British Prime Minister Tony Blair who has publicly gone on record saying that he finds the GM food safe for even his children. With the Royal Society proving him wrong, Tony Blair may find it worthwhile to invite Hinze Hogendoorn to help his children conduct simple experiments with mice to find out what is safe for them. And until then, he should direct the British High Commission offices world wide to refrain from issuing press releases stating that GM food is safe. #
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses to this article can be mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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