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December 18, 2002

Small Businesses Join the Fight Against Genetically Engineered Food

BOSTON, MA--- Over 100 seed companies serving the United States and Canada have pledged to keep their supplies free of genetically modified products. The move has been heralded as a rare example of opposition within private industry to the growing use of biotechnology in the North American food supply. The coalition, created by the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) and High Mowing Organic Seeds, is called the Safe Seed Initiative. Today, its signatories represent a small but significant portion of seeds sold through mail order catalogues.

A number of large companies, including Johnny�s Select Seeds and Seeds of Change, have signed the pledge, which is advertised to millions of consumers through voluntary labeling in seed packages and catalogues. On an annual basis, genetically modified seeds are planted on over 200 million acres of farmland worldwide. In the United States, these seeds account for 70 percent of cotton, 74 percent of soybeans, and 32 percent of corn grown in the fields. The vast majority of these crops derive from seed technologies owned by a single company, Pharmacia. As Sujatha Byravan, Executive Director at the Council for Responsible Genetics points out, �many fear that this growing concentration of ownership is squeezing out small farmers, as well as threatening competition and food security.�

In the absence of strong regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), genetically modified crops could pose a serious threat to human health and the environment. Government has shied away from conducting long-term health studies based on the principle that genetically modified foods are �substantially equivalent� to conventional agriculture. Evidence is mounting, however, that such novel foods may pose a danger to consumers through exposure to hidden food allergens and antibiotic resistance. Long-term effects of genetically modified foods may be difficult to trace because of delayed impacts and the multiple roots of disease etiology. The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment may reduce important insect and wildlife populations and threaten native species through uncontrolled cross-pollination.

As scientists at the University of California recently documented in the November 2001 issue of Nature, indigenous maize plants as far off as the highlands of southern Mexico have already been contaminated with genetically engineered corn. The possibility of a major decline in the genetic diversity of plant species cannot be ignored. As Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds suggests, the Safe Seed Initiative helps keep consumers aware of the existence of alternatives. �This is one of the few initiatives of its kind on any issue,� he said. �What makes it unique is that players in the industry itself are the driving force of change.� Byravan further points out that such an effort �suggests that labeling products asO GE-free� is not just socially responsible. It can also be an effective marketing tool.� For additional information on the Safe Seed Initiative, visit http://www.gene-watch.org or contact Peter Shorett at (617) 868-0870.

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