As GE Debate Intensifies US Government Likely to
Support Bogus "Voluntary Labeling" to Co-opt Dissent
Headline: Genetically modified crops face trade test
Wire Service: UPn (UPI US & World)
Date: Wed, Jun 16, 1999
By ELLEN BECK
UPI Science News
WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- A trade war is brewing between the United
States and Britain over the health risks of eating genetically modified
Experts in Britain want a moratorium on such foods until the United
States regulates the companies producing the altered foods and requires
product labeling. Sir William Asscher, of the British Medical Association,
which represents more than 80 percent of that country's physicians, says
today the moratorium on commercial planting should be in place until safety
concerns are resolved.
This week the issue got the attention of the U.S. Senate, which Tuesday
passed a resolution urging President Clinton to address the issue of
biotechnology exports during the upcoming G-8 Summit in Germany.
Researchers have been genetically altering crops for generations but Dr.
Paul Billings, a medical geneticist with the Heart of Texas Health Care
System, said the purpose has changed in the past five years, creating new,
unknown health risks.
He said while researchers used to genetically change a plant to make it
look or taste better, now gene alterations are "artificially grafted" onto
plants to make it bug resistant, for example. "You introduce a big change
and then look for the fallout. There's really inadequate safety
monitoring," Billings tells UPI today. "There is substantial evidence that
it is truly harmful."
The worry has led farmers, researchers and health officials in Britain,
including Prince Charles, to call for a ban on genetically altered crops
until the safety issues are settled and that is having an impact on U.S.
Asscher said: "In the United States, it has gone farther and faster than
it should have without governance. We do recognize that there are enormous
trade implications, but you've got to separate trade from science and
science has to take precedence here."
Billings said there has been little research done on the health
implications of what he called "a change going on in the food supply." Some
known examples include genetic altering that strips recombinant soybeans of
their heart protecting mechanism and genes that when added to foods develop
proteins that cause new allergies for unsuspecting consumers.
"When it comes to foodstuffs, the exposure is involuntary," Asscher
said. In 1998, genetically altered seed varieties accounted for 38 percent
of the U.S. soybean acreage. Much of the corn grown in the United States
contains genetically added Bt, a natural pesticide, which in one recent
study was shown to have killed or made sick all of the monarch butterflies
that ate it.
It's estimated that 60 percent of all foods on U.S. grocery store
shelves includes some genetically engineered organism.
Monsanto, an industry leader in genetically modified crops, declined to
comment but recently contracted with ConAgra Inc. for it to separate
genetically altered corn from regularly grown corn and find markets for
"Monsanto has been doing it (altering crops) for about five years,"
Billings said. "They've clearly taken a hit in Europe and they were looking
for a big market in Europe. They may be rethinking their model."
In a publication Monsanto called its "Biotech Primer" it acknowledged
the argument that not enough is known about the impact of genetically
engineered food but added, "There is...in spite of widespread research,
still no evidence to support this view."
Asscher said U.K. consumers are "very sensitized" to the issue and will
not accept genetically altered foods until the U.S. government takes
action. Industry sources said they expect U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman within the next month to make a statement regarding product
labeling of genetically altered foods.
"What he'll probably do is say that they're going to allow voluntary
labeling of genetically modified-free products," said Joseph Mendelson,
legal director of the International Center for Technology. "That
significantly shifts the burden to those selling non-engineered foods."
With the next few weeks the ICT expects a summary judgment decision on
its 1998 lawsuit against the government over genetically altered products..
The case contends the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, under which the Food and
Drug Administration operates, requires goods that are materially changed in
any way be labeled and food additives be proved safe before marketed.
Mendelson said genetic altering materially changes crops, and genetic
material is an additive so the government should require labeling and
safety testing of such products. The FDA's position has been that it treats
genetically altered goods the same as other commercially produced products
and does not believe the statute requires labeling.
After the BMA issued a recent report calling for segregating genetically
altered products and calling for a ban on such products in Britain if the
United States refuses to comply, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) led the charge in
the industry's defense.
"Countries are manufacturing trade barriers that hurt American farmers,"
Harkin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said. "These
baseless accusations are blocking American farmers from selling their
products in the global market."
The Senate's resolution urges the president to seek a consensus with
major trading partners on the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, to
ask for the adoption of rational, scientific systems for regulating such
products, and to find ways to eliminate international trade barriers.
On Thursday in Washington, scientists, physicians, farmers and financial
experts are expected for the first "National Summit on the Hazards of
Genetically Engineered Foods."