|Issue 2: foodfuture farce||
Norwich MP, Ian Gibson, a former dean of biology at UEA, has urged schools in Norfolk not to subject “people to risks, least of all young children” with respect to serving genetically modified (GM) food.
Dr Gibson who, like many scientists and
consumer organisations, has urged a ban on GM food while more research
is done, said, “We have to establish a situation where the public can feel
very confident they know what the choice is.”
Schools across the country are banning GM foods from their canteens in a dramatic vote of no confidence in the gene revolution. Local authorites which have banned known GM foods from their schools include Kent, Surrey and Oxfordshire, Tyneside, Southampton and London's Lambeth. The latest to take action is Stockport Council in Cheshire which has banned GM foods from 120 schools because of 'health concerns'. It is also planning to ban GM foods from staff canteens and meals on wheels for the elderly.
Several other councils have effectively banned GM-foods, including Dorset, Leicstershire and Nottinghamshire who says its suppliers have a policy of not using GM-foods in school dinners. In London, Lewisham asks contractors to avoid GM foods where they can identify them.
Norfolk does not “knowingly” use any food
that’s been genetically contaminated but a spokesperson from Norfolk Genetic
Concern has commented that this is too vague, given poor labelling, “They
have to follow it through and make sure contractors go to suppliers and
demand that food is not genetically engineered.”
Even before it got started the Food and Drink Federation’s Norwich foodfuture debate of Septmeber 9th on GM food was generating controversy. The panel was described as “obviously unbalanced” by a prize winning writer on genetic enginereering, Dr Mae-Wan Ho of the Open University’s Biology Dept, who also described the organisers’ literature as “misleading” about a dangerous technology.
The biased nature of the panel selected
for the event - 5 wholehearted supporters of GM food and
crops versus 2 critics and a school girl - was
also proclaimed throughout the day on Radio Broadland’s news bulletins,
following a joint press release by several Norfolk organisations. A supporter
of Norfolk Genetic Information Network also
debated the balance of the panel live on Radio Norfolk’s breakfast show
with a representative of the Food & Drink Federation, drawing attention
to the wide range of critical opinion missing from the panel - everyone
from a broad range of critical scientists, the RSPB and English Nature
to the Consumers’ Association, organic farmers and the CLA.
The Vegetarian Society has taken a clear anti-GM stand, by outlawing the use of its approval symbol on foods containing GM ingredients (see page 3). because of the potential risks they pose to the health of individuals, to the environment and to the welfare of animals. The Society has also joined with the Consumers’ Association in slamming the new labelling rules on GM ingredients. (see page 4)
According to recent research a plant genetically modified to resist a herbicide also developed a far greater ability to pollinate other plants and pass on its traits. The findings increase the likelihood of the much feared emergence of invasive ''superweeds'' which are either uncontrollable or require the use of highly toxic weedkillers.
The plant's increased ability to pollinate other plants was entirely unintended, and as such appears yet another confirmation that genetic engineering is a very imprecise, and hence inherently risky, process as its effects, both short and long term, are often entirely unpredictable.
Joy Bergelson, a lecturer in ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, said the findings show that genetic engineering can substantially increase the chances of ''transgene escape,'' or the spread of certain traits from one plant to another. Her study was published in a recent issue of the journal ‘Nature’.
In a separate study, Ohio State University scientist Allison Snow found that when weeds acquire herbicide resistance from GM crops, they maintain their ability to pass these traits on.
If the modified oilseed rape planned as the first commercial crop for the UK proves remotely as promiscuous as the GM plant in the University of Chicago study, then the serious environmental threat of superweeds in our countryside may not be far behind. Environmental groups have called on the Government to finally impose the immediate moratorium on GM crops that bodies like English Nature have been calling for, until much more detailed research can be completed.
At the Norwich foodfuture debate, the man from Novartis was at great pains to emphasise that his company would never ever do anything to endanger anyone’s health. Yet that is precisely what Novartis is already doing, in the view of many scientific critics, through its GM maize.
In January 1997 the Novartis GM maize was approved for use in Europe by the EU Commission. Within days leaked minutes of the Commission's deliberations disclosed alarming evidence that economic and commercial pressures were put well before considerations of public health and protection of the environment.
Novartis maize contains a gene which confers resistance to the antibiotic Ampicillin. Spread of antibiotic resistance has reached alarming proportions worldwide and so is a major concern within the medical community. An article published in a French scientific journal, La Recherche, earlier this year emphasised that the link between genetic crops and the spread of antibiotic resistance has been underestimated so far. The UK’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes has also warned against the use of such genes in crops. As maize is often fed to livestock, a particular concern is that the antibiotic resistance will get into microbes in the animals’ gut and so be passed on to humans (eg via dairy products).
Norway has banned all genetically modified organisms containing antibiotic resistance genes. EU-member countries Austria and Luxembourg have also banned the import of Novartis maize.
As well as threatening human health, the Novartis GM maize has been engineered to kill the European Corn Borer via a toxin-producing gene. Recent scientific studies indicate that this also harms beneficial insects such as green lacewing, an important pest predator.
Who could ever forget the ghastly spectacle of John Gummer’s young daughter being fed a possibly contaminated burger in her father’s desperate bid to reassure the public that government regulation on BSE was working? Now the Network is launching ‘The Gummer Awards’ for similarly crass reassurance on GM. Here are the ‘The Gummer Awards’ first recipients:
Dr Mike Gasson of the Institute of Food at Colney recently told the Evening News: “If it has received official government approval, it is quite safe for children.” Dr Gasson’s surprisingly high opinion of government regulation may not be unconnected with the fact that he himself is on one of their regulatory committees.
Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Colney told the foodfuture debate, he’d rather feed his children genetically contaminated than chemically contaminated food. What he didn’t explain was why their food had to be contaminated in the first place!
According to a number of recent reports in the British press (including The Times, The Independent and The Express), the UK Government is coming under pressure to rapidly introduce GM crops from both Bill Clinton, who has raised the subject a number of times with Tony Blair, and from David Hill, a former Labour spin-doctor turned lobbyist, whose partner is chief press officer at No.10.
Lobbyist Hill has been hired for his Government access by Monsanto, the American biotech giant that is currently running a £1M PR campaign in the UK. According to The Times (19/8/98), this has led to Government ministers having secret meetings with Monsanto.
One recent meeting with Food Minister, Jeff Rooker, was being arranged, The Times claims, even while Mr Rooker was busy reassuring MPs that no such meetings had taken place.
More and more information is also emerging on the extraordnary inter-penetration of the Clinton administration and the Monsanto Corporation. This includes key personnel moving between the two in a so-called “revolving door”.
To give just a few out of the many possible personnel exchanges between the two: Micky Kantor, former Secretary of the US Dept. of Commerce, is now a member of the board of directors of Monsanto; Linda J. Fisher, a former Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is now Vice-President of Public Affairs for Monsanto; William D. Ruckelshaus, the former chief administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency is now (and for the past 12 years) a member of the board of directors of Monsanto.
The traffic isn’t just one way, however, and it involves key posts in relation to food safety and environmental protection in the US. For example, Lidia Watrud, a former microbial biotechnology researcher at Monsanto, is now with the US Environmental Protection Agency; and Margaret Miller, a former laboratory supervisor for Monsanto, is now Deputy Director of Human Food Safety and Consultative Services in the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Nor is the currency of exchange only human. During the 1996 US election, Monsanto donated thousands of dollars to Clinton in "soft money" (funds not included in the ban on corporate donations).
Monsanto has also been one of the five biggest corporate contributors to Clinton’s wefare-to-work scheme. During his State of the Nation address last year the President singled out Monsanto for praise.
The Independent says British MPs have compared the way Clinton is leaning on Blair to Blair’s intervention with the Italian Prime Minister on behalf of Rupert Murdoch.
Consumers must keep raising their voices on the issue of genetic foods if the full-scale introduction of GM-foods is to be averted. A SIMPLE AND EFFECTIVE WAY FOR US TO OPPOSE GENETIC FOODS IS TO WRITE TO THE BIG FOOD COMPANIES AND RETAILERS. Please encourage anyone concerned about GM foods to send them as many letters, faxes, and e-mails as possible.
This month’s corporate indifference award
goes to the food giant Unilever who, through their subsidiary Van der Bergh
Foods, make Batchelor’s Beanfeast. Beanfeast has been used as a ‘tester’
for introducing more GM ingredients into Unilever’s product range, but
the new Vegetarian Society ban on GM ingredients (see page 2) means that
they can no longer endorse their Batchelor’s Beanfeast product whilst
Unilever must either now remove the Vegetarian Society symbol (a green tick) from Beanfeast or remove the GM soya. Greenpeace are campaigning to encourage them to remove the contaminated soya. Writing to Van Der Bergh now, when they have such an important decision to make, will remind them of their responsibility to their customers.
Write to: Helen Oates, Van Den Bergh Foods, Brooke House, Manor Royal, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 2RQ Fax number: 01293 648932
Points to bear in mind:
Unilever have claimed that they cannot source enough natural soya. International soya traders, Norgrow UK, have stated that this is 'incorrect'. Iceland, the wholefood trade, Heinz, Kelloggs and others are all offering GM-free foods. Most of the companies endorsed by the Vegetarian Society have also said that staying GM-free is no problem.
Unilever have claimed that GM foods are safe because they are approved by government! However in the wake of the BSE disaster, when infected beef was allowed into the food chain, many consumers are rightly wary of the ability of current regulations to ensure food safety. The committees that approve GM foods are reliant on representatives from institutes and companies that grow GM plants and from the food industry who hope to profit by them. They are not able to either take into account public concerns or act in a precautionary way. Unilever is on shaky ground if it continues to hide behind their approval!
PLEASE ALSO WRITE TO: Tessa Jowell MP, Health Minister, Dept of Health, Skipton House, 80 London Rd, London SE1 6LW
At the foodfuture debate in Norwich the public were told that people in the Third World were clamouring for the genetic engineering of crops because it had so much to offer them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A recent joint statement by scientific and agricultural delegates to the United Nations from every African country, bar one, said "We ... strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us."
According to such scientists, as well as the aid agencies, like Christian Aid and Action Aid, biotechnology will undermine food security and further impoverish poor farmers. Action Aid described the promotion of biotech on the backs of the hungry as “morally abhorrent.”
Loopholes in the new EU labelling regulations on GM foods that came into force at the beginning of September mean that many popular foods, including ice creams, chocolate bars and bread, could contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients without being labelled as such. Indeed, 90% of GM foods will escape any labelling.
The Consumers’ Association considers the new regulations deeply flawed, while Friends of the Earth has labelled them simply a “con”. Former Agriculture Minister, Jack Cunningham described them as "a triumph for consumer rights to better information."
"Information provided to governments and
food suppliers by the biotechnology industry is not fully representative
of the technical limitations of genetic engineering, and therefore does
not give a complete picture of the potential dangers in its use."
“The Government and the EU should resist the power of the giant food companies in the United States, which are effectively dictating what we must eat, without giving any convincing estimates of the long-term effects." - Colin Pickthall MP
“Producers of genetically modified
food have held secret meetings with ministers despite indications from
Jeff Rooker [the Food Safety Minister] that he had no such intention.”
"There are moments and issues in history
where parliament is inadequate and it falls to the people themselves to
act. With the case of genetic engineering and the granting of patents on
life, I believe we have reached one of those historic moments" -
Alan Simpson MP
In addition to the website established by one of Norfolk Genetic Information Network’s founder members providing up-to-date information on GM foods on sale now in the UK (find it at: <http://i.am/gm>), a new website has just been launched by the consumer group The Nationwide Food Survey which includes their useful guide: ‘How to Avoid Genetic Foods’. Find it at <http://wkweb4.cableinet.co.uk/pbrown/ index.htm>
Norfolk Genetic Information Network
needs your help to spread the word.If you’d like to give some of your time,
your expertise or make a financial contribution to the campaign, you can
contact us by:
Norfolk Genetics Concern can also be contacted via the above.
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