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Genetic Engineering by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 75 (New Year 1997)

Genetic Engineering is claimed to be just an extension of selective breeding. From far back in history, farmers have selected the plants and animals most suited for their needs and used them to improve the next generation. Characteristics which appeared spontaneously in the gene structure have been encouraged and preserved thus producing variants suited for our purposes. Genetic Engineering, it is claimed, is only a conscious manipulation of this process. This seems plausible, so why not just let the experts get on with it?.

One reason why we should question the use of these modified plants which are being thrust on world markets is that it is a huge commercial proposition that can produce enormous profits for monopoly firms. We are told that these novel foods are quite safe, but consumer and environmental organisations have their doubts and these doubts should be fully explored. Past experience of changes in food production methods give us reasons for proceeding with more caution. We were told that precautions against BSE in cattle were safe, but we now see that they led to disaster. Allowing the cattle feed industry to regulate itself resulted in a lowering of the temperature at which animal parts were processed into the feed and this is the most likely explanation for the explosion of BSE cases in cattle.

Is the scientific case for genetically modified foods clear? Many respected scientists have grave doubts. The UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes are worried about a gene in genetically modified maize (developed by Ciba Geigy) which gives bacterial resistance to an antibiotic. If this maize is fed to cattle, they could become resistant to the antibiotic, a resistance which could in turn be passed to humans. Doctors would then find it more difficult to treat human diseases. (This problem has already arisen through the giving of antibiotics to food animals).

The Agriculture and Biotechnology Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted that when a protein was taken from the Brazil Nut and was put into a soya bean, people already allergic to Brazil nuts became allergic to the experimental soya bean.

A genetically modified soya bean is being marketed by Monsanto, who produce the herbicide Roundup. The modified soya bean will be resistant to the herbicide, thus allowing crops to be sprayed more frequently. Could this be harmful to human health and also to the environment? Surely we must examine such problems more thoroughly.

A senior lecturer at a London Medical School considers that the gene modification technology used for plants and animals is imprecise. The new gene material is foreign to the plant and is being taken up in a random process that can bring disruption to the functioning of the new plants in unknown ways. Safety tests relate only to known ingredients and there is no equivalent to the clinical trials used in testing new drugs.

Fear have been voiced that these modified plants could exchange genes with wild plants. If the herbicide resistant soya bean spread this resistance to the weeds, it would no longer be possible to control the weeds.

These new products should not be accepted until the scientific and any other arguments have been more fully debated and reviewed by organisations completely detached from commercial interests. The first requirement is that modified products should be clearly labelled so that consumers can make their own choices.

The lessons from Britain last year (BSE, E Coli) is that consumers can no longer trust the food industry to provide healthy food. Other European countries are also demanding more organic foods. The European Commission has accepted the genetically modified maize, but Austria is refusing to accept it and challenging the EU on health and environmental grounds. Chefs from London restaurants are protesting against this manipulation of food and insist on more information. A population survey shows that people know little about these problems but are sceptical about government pronouncements. They consider the probable improvements trivial and suspect there will be problems when commercial interests have the upper hand.

There is a need for a regulatory body similar to the Food and Drugs Advisory body in USA to take the side of the consumer in the face of producer interests. Possible long term problems should be addressed. The problem of disposing of nuclear waste had not been foreseen. It could be that the fears raised are unfounded but we must insist on further, more long-term tests and debate before proceeding further. We must write to MPs and the media to make our views known.

Plamil Foods who use soya beans for their 'soya milk' and other products have prudently bought in stocks to last a year and will use this time to experiment with alternative plant sources to make 'milk' from.

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Cross-reference: Genetically Modified Food