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Scotland: Consumer Advocates Throw Down Gauntlet on GE Foods

Agence France Presse
February 29th, 2000

EDINBURGH -- Genetically-modified foods face a consumer revolt if biotech corporations, scientists and policy-makers fail to overhaul the way they vet the safety of these novel products, consumer watchdogs said Tuesday.

Speaking at a forum on the future of transgenic foods, they said that in industrialised countries, especially in Europe, growing numbers of the public felt the safety assessment process was determined by a narrow elite and driven by corporate greed.

For many people, they said, food products risked being authorised that could be dangerous for the health and the environment.

John Durant, professor of communications at London's Imperial College, said bio-engineered food had been plunged into a "crisis of credibility" among consumers, who saw no benefits and -- in the wake of the mad-cow scare -- only risks.

"It's been lack of awareness of what citizens care about that has caused most of the problems," Durant said. "The risks of policy-making behind closed doors are greater than doing it in public."

Public hostility to the new foods had been fuelled by "a narrow scientific interpretation" of the risks, said Julian Edwards, head of Consumers International, a global association of consumer groups.

Genetically-modified foods are made from plants that have had material added to their genes from other species.

Their supporters say there can be dramatic cost benefits for the farmer, advantages in taste, nutrition or shelf life for the consumer and a reduction in the amount of pesticides sprayed in the environment.

But these products are so new that there is no internationally-agreed system for assessing whether these foods are safe.

National regulations, safeguards and approval procedures for this innovation are unprecedented -- but they are often an obscure tangle that has helped to stoke accusations of coverups and a public sense of helplessness.

The three-day Edinburgh conference, hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has exposed a deep rift over "substantial equivalence," an international guideline that says a modified plant should be acceptable if it is chemically similar to a conventional strain.

Opponents say this chemical principle fails to take into account such risks as "jumping genes" that may cross over from the modified species and enter other forms of wildlife -- creating, for instance, superweeds that grow out of control.

"This is a very new technology, and we need to be very humble about what we don't know," said Michael Hansen, of the Consumers Union of the United States.

He noted that, in the 1950s, there were optimistic claims about the safety of nuclear power and the pesticide DDT. A decade later, new scientific knowledge proved these claims to be absurdly wrong.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Pete Riley said an overlooked danger was the effect of transgenic farm feed, such as corn and soy meal, on farm animals.

"For some animals, a plant may account for 50 to 60 percent of its diet," he said. "Genetically-modified crops could have a much more significant effect on farm animals than on humans."

In the United States, the feed was routinely only given a four-week test period on a couple of animals, and this was hardly enough to assess long-term risks that could be passed up the food chain to humans, Riley said.

Biotechnologists from developing countries urged Europe not to let its fears destroy a beneficial tool that could help feed their poor.

Chen Zhianglang, vice president of Beijing University, said there was no evidence of any threat, and this had been proven by exhaustive lab tests and exposure to hundreds of millions of people.

"This is a safe technology," he said. "In five years' time, it will be considered mainstream."

Canadian scientist Alan McHughen, of the University of Saskatchewan, said it was senseless for environmentalists to challenge researchers to prove that there were no risks.

"As scientists, we cannot prove negatives," he said. "There is no zero risk."

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