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August 29, 2000


Reader's Digest: What You Should Know About GM FOODS


Posted by: Tom Hoban (Thanks to Agnet)


What You Should Know About GM FOODS

(Reader's Digest, Canada)

Let's sort the biotech wheat from the chaff

IT'S A beautiful but unlikely media star. With its ten-centimetre
wingspan, orange and black colour and arduous, fluttering migrations, the
monarch butterfly has long been a favourite of naturalists. But it wasn't
a full-blown celebrity until May 1999, when researchers at an American
university announced that monarch caterpillars died after feeding on
pollen from genetically modified (GM) corn.

The news caused an uproar. Environmental groups were quick to claim, as
one Greenpeace flyer did, that "GM organisms have the potential to wreak
havoc on natural ecosystems and to threaten human health." Similarly,
Friends of the Earth warned shrilly, "There is a real risk that farms
could soon become wildlife wastelands."

The Bt gene, which lets a crop produce its own pesticide, had been used in
some corn products approved by the European Union (EU) scientific
committee in Brussels. But with public opinion alarmed, EU environment
ministers have refused to consider authorizing any new GM products. That
has helped shut down an estimated $200 million worth of American corn
imports and threatened a transatlantic trade war.

In the meantime, shortly after the monarch research made headlines,
independent evaluation by scientists showed that it shouldn't be taken too
seriously -- it was very preliminary and limited to the confines of a
laboratory, with no necessary implications for monarch butterflies in the

"Insecticides kill butterflies; we already knew that," says Jean-Pierre
Prunier, an agronomist at France's National Institute for Agricultural
Research (INRA). "This doesn't prove GM corn is more dangerous for
monarchs than conventional spraying, which is probably much worse."

Officials at Britain's Ministry of Agriculture agree. "People jumped to
conclusions," says a spokesman for the Joint Food Safety and Standards
Group. "Bt, derived from a soil bacterium, is a natural pesticide used for
years by conventional and organic farmers. More research needs to be done
before a decision can be reached on this study for the agricultural

Even the monarch study authors warned against drawing conclusions about
the risk. Still, the campaign against genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) has reached a frenzy. Some groups actually destroy test crops.
Often rigged out in white biohazard suits, they invade farms and cut down
swaths of experimental corn or soybeans.

"Our actions are proportional to the risk of GMOs," asserts Hans Wolters,
head of Greenpeace's European office. Media photographers and cameramen
are frequently alerted in advance.

Last January the pressure led to a new protocol being signed in Montreal
by 130 nations. It allows countries to ban GM food imports if they feel
there is insufficient evidence that they are safe. Producer countries
(chiefly Canada and the United States) must mark shipments that "may
contain" GM materials.

Currently, no GM fresh fruits or vegetables are available for human
consumption in Europe. Yet Robin Woo, deputy director at Georgetown
University's Centre for Food and Nutrition Policy in Washington, D.C.,
asserts, "Serious science indicates that there is a reasonable certainty
that GMOs are safe for human consumption and for the environment."

To put this controversy into perspective, here are answers to
commonly-asked questions about biotech food:

What's the difference between conventional food and GM crops?

For centuries, farmers have modified crops by selecting seeds that give
the best yield, taste and nutrition.

To get those seeds, breeders cross and backcross different varieties of a
plant, thus mixing thousands of unknown genes with largely unpredictable
results. Then they wait a full growing season. If the right hybrid doesn't
turn up, they repeat the trial-and-error process.

GM techniques let plant breeders choose the traits they want with much
greater precision. A specific gene among the 50,000 in, for example, a
tomato can be isolated and transferred directly to another plant to obtain
desirable traits like pest resistance or better quality. This does not
harm the nutritional or health aspects of the target plant.

Greenpeace and other such groups assert that GM techniques pose special
risks not created by traditional plant breeding. This assertion is not
supported by scientific evidence. "In every study so far, no evidence has
been found that GM crops present special risks," notes R. James Cook,
professor of plant pathology at Washington State University and a member
of America's National Academy of Sciences. "The types of risk are exactly
the same as for crops modified by the classical plant-breeding methods."

Has testing been done to ensure safety for humans?

Scientists contacted by Reader's Digest note that the GM foods available
today have been put through more testing than any food in history. Around
the world, some 25,000 field trials have been done on more than 60 crops
in 45 countries, including most of the 15 countries of the EU.

Before being approved for use, GM foods are assessed for "substantial
equivalence" under guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, the
Food and Agriculture Organization, the Organization for Economic
Co-operation and Development, and Europe's Novel Foods Regulation, among

This means scientists have compared them with their traditional
counterparts and found them no different in nutritional value and health
properties. Says Maurice Lex of the European Commission's Biotechnology
Unit in Brussels: "We've spent 43 million euros on biotech safety since
1986. It's total nonsense to claim, as some do, that safety studies on
GMOs haven't been done."

If a gene were transferred from the peanut plant to, say, the carrot, that
could cause a reaction in someone allergic to peanuts who thought he was
only eating a carrot. So GM foods undergo rigorous testing for potential
allergy problems. Similarly, pesticides bred into crops like Bt corn are
not believed to affect humans, unlike widely used conventional pesticides
that can cause muscular and nervous-system symptoms if accidentally

Says Maurice Hofnung, head of the Pasteur Institute's molecular
programming and genetic toxicology unit in Paris: "We've never had the
least incident with GMOs -- not a single incident in 25 years of research
and use. So, if the guidelines are followed, I conclude it's safe."

Why is biotech agriculture needed?

Nearly 40 percent of the world's food crop is lost every year to insects,
fungal diseases and spoilage that biotech could help prevent. Nutrition
experts say GM crops are also going to be needed to help increase cereal
yields to meet food demand, especially in the Third World. Dr. Manvendra
Kachole, a leader of Indian farmers' unions, recently lashed out at
anti-GMO activists: "India today cannot afford to listen to
pseudoscientific rhetoric."

On the biotech horizon are crops that require less pesticide and water
during the growing season and that have improved nutritional content. One
GM rice in development at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in
Zurich has enough beta-carotene to satisfy daily vitamin A requirements
with only 300 grams of cooked rice -- a boon to the up to 250 million
people around the world who suffer serious vitamin A deficiency. The same
rice has increased iron and will help fight the deficiency of this
mineral, which affects over four billion people.

Danish researchers are working on GM cassava that can be eaten without
danger of goiter and leg paralysis even if not properly cooked, unlike the
variety consumed by more than 400 million people, mostly in the developing

Are GMOs safe for the environment?

Most scientists point out that no new ecological or environmental problems
have shown up in the thousands of biotech field trials and the millions of
hectares of commercial planting. In fact, all the signs point to less
damage to the environment than with conventional crops. A study by the
National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy in the United States last
year showed that planting GM corn with the Bt gene that kills the corn
borer insect reduced the amount of land that would have been sprayed with
traditional insecticides by 810,000 hectares. That's millions of litres of
chemicals that didn't seep into groundwater.

GM crops resistant to herbicides while growing, rather than treating the
soil before planting, may also reduce the number of chemical applications
needed. The herbicides used with these GMOs may be less polluting than
conventional ones like atrazine, according to Bill French at the National
Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, England.

Increasingly, environmental scientists are coming to realize that Europe's
intensive conventional agriculture has raped the countryside in a way GM
crops never could. Three decades of it have poisoned groundwater and
created dozens of "superweeds" with tolerance to herbicides. In the United
Kingdom alone, the last 20 years have seen the loss of more than 20
million farmland birds of ten species.

"In Europe we already have serious problems with conventional agriculture,
including surface and groundwater pollution," says Brian Johnson of
English Nature, the government's official advisors on nature conservation.
"Biotechnology may offer a way out."

Can we trust the experts?

A recent succession of food-safety disasters and imbroglios, from BSE to
dioxin, and even troubles with HIV-tainted transfusion blood, have
seriously decreased public confidence in the ability of authorities to
protect public health. Nevertheless, the scientific evidence pointing to
the safety of biotech food is impressive in breadth. It was EU political
leaders, not scientists, who hit the panic button in June 1999 in
Brussels, creating the de facto moratorium on GMO authorizations in the
wake of the monarch butterfly report. Yet the Bt corn concerned had
already won approval from scientists in the United States, Chile,
Argentina and France, as well as from the EU's own scientific committee.

Several high-placed European Commission scientists privately told Reader's
Digest that they are dismayed by the politically generated confusion in
Brussels over GMOs. "It's chaos," says one. "GMOs are now perceived here
as different from other foods. They're not."

Food-safety specialists agree that the Commission must create a
centralized, science-based, nonpolitical regulatory agency to carry out
the GM approval process. In January it proposed setting up an independent
European food authority in 2002.

That's not to say, however, that citizens should not voice their opinion.
In Switzerland, for example, there were five months of freewheeling public
debate in 1998. Citizens then voted 2 to 1 against banning several aspects
of biotechnology, including field releases of GM crops. No other European
country has gone through this process.

Politicians must listen to the scientists and give them more of a say in
determining policies on GMOs. The subject is too complex, and too much is
at stake, for policy to be set by political posturing.

Until such changes are made, consumers will go on being unsure of what's
on their plates -- and worried about the butterflies in their fields.

Do you think genetically modified foods are a health risk? Your comments
may be used in a future issue of Reader's Digest magazine. To post your
comments, use this submission box.