ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  9 November 2000


EASTERN DAILY PRESS   9 November 2000, Letters

Scare stories over GM crops

From  Dr Gregory C M Sage, Stocks Barn West, Swaffham Prior, Cambridge

It is invidious of Jonathan Matthews (EDP Letters, October 31) to try to link  BSE and GM crops for obvious political reasons.  BSE is a new disease with a previously poorly understood causative agent;  genetic modification has been developing for over 20 years and has grown out of 100 years of increasing genetic and plant breeding understanding.  It is important not to regard GM crops as  solely a UK problem even though BSE, largely, has been so.

Genetic modification, like all technologies, is improving and becoming more manageable with experience and will not go away.  Recent reports in the scientific literature from India and China show this.  In developing countries the ethical imperative is to feed poor people sustainably and both India and China are on the very cusp of growing home-developed GM crops commercially on a large scale.

Indian scientists from Jawaharal Nehru University in New Dehli report, in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, that they have put a non-allergenic gene from the Indian crop Amaranthus into potatoes. The inserted gene codes for a protein which has a well-balanced amino-acid composition and hence improves the nutritional quality of potatoes which, although being the most important non-cereal crop in the world, contains limited amounts of several amino acids essential to humans.

Chinese scientists from Huazhong Agricultural University n Wuhan and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines report, in Nature Biotechnology, that they have put a well-known gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into rice. This time the inserted gene produces a protein harmful to stem-boring insects.  The new rice has yielded 28.9 per cent more than non-Bt plants without the use of any chemicals.

GM crops are considered by developing and populous countries as vital to their survival.  It ill behoves us as well-fed or overfed Europeans to indulge in hysterical scare-mongering.
*  *  *
Eastern Daily Press, 31st October 2000
Another Public Safety Fiasco

As the EDP has rightly said, the BSE inquiry has shown that the public were betrayed. The present Government, of course, is keen to say that it has turned its back forever on half-truths and cover-ups.

But the GM-contaminated oilseed rape fiasco has already shown us that it is business as usual.
Firstly, the Government’s safeguards were shown to be wholly inadequate - thousands of acres of farmland were contaminated by the rogue crops, while countless consumers have unknowingly bought GM products.

Worse still, it emerged that the Government sat on the information about the contamination for a whole month, while farmers were busy planting the contaminated seed! Indeed, it was only  after Sweden went public that British ministers finally released the news, surreptitiously in a written Commons answer. If it had not been for the Swedish action, would MAFF ever have gone public?

And once again, in the Government’s determination to reassure the public, we got the familiar half truths. Nick Brown told us there was no risk of further contamination “because the GM variety is sterile and it is difficult to see how it could cross-pollinate with other plants”. But Advanta, the company which sold the contaminated seed, admitted that only “a high proportion” was sterile - a very different matter.

Just as serious was the evidence that the seed contamination had originally occurred because of cross pollination in Canada over something like 4 kms. Yet all these months later the buffer zones on the Government’s GM trials stand at just 50 m, while the ministries continue to consider the matter. In the meantime our countryside serves as an open air laboratory.
On the food safety front, has the affair demonstrated any diminution in the MAFF culture of secrecy and complacency?  Hardly! The supposedly independent Food Standards Agency, despite all its brave talk about openness and transparency, stayed silent about the seed scandal until MAFF was forced to go public. Even then the FSA was entirely reassuring and did nothing to protest the loss of consumer choice that had resulted.

That the FSA is showing the old MAFF failings is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, the FSA’s chief officer is a full time civil servant and former career bureaucrat at MAFF, as are a large swathe of FSA officials.

The FSA’s director, Sir John Krebs, has been brought in from outside, but Sir John was on record as rejecting consumer concerns over GM foods before he was appointed. Since Sir John’s appointment the agency, which takes its advice from exactly the same old sources and committees, has refused to open up the question of the safety of GM foods, even though it was very quick to launch an investigation into organic food.

In short, those currently charged with protecting the public interest have done nothing to earn the public’s trust, or to indicate an open mind on issues where big commercial interests collide with public safety.

The Government’s methods of issuing information appear wholly unchanged when it comes to GM crops which have all the hallmarks of BSE mark II.

Jonathan Matthews
The Street

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