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Newsletter Issue 7 No 4  November 1998

The GMO Controversy 

by Ruth Denniston and Mary Anne Howard-Clarke

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In July 1998 the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) reached an agreement, signed by the then Associate Minister of Health, on a food standard to regulate food produced by gene technology. This standard states that the labelling of genetically modified foods is only required where they are 'substantially different' from their conventional counterparts, that is "where they are different in a property (such as taste), in nutrition or in use."

So what's all the fuss about?

There is much debate surrounding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO's), including the concept of 'substantial equivalence'. The bio-tech industry has been able to avoid needing to prove that the pesticides produced by the genetically manipulated plants are not harmful to humans, because they have argued that the 'substantially equivalent' natural product has already gone through the required approval process.

This has already led to the development and release on to the market of 'substantially equivalent' seeds such as 'Roundup Ready' soybeans, which have been linked to increased levels of estrogen hormone and breast cancer in women who consume the resulting soy products.

GMO's are being created by agro-chemical companies ostensibly to increase food production for the world. Monsanto, a major industrial seed and biotechnology company, having just spent over US$6,000 million to take control of other companies in this field, is one of the key proponents of genetic technology. Sceptics challenge the real motives of such a company.

Monsanto have recently organised and financed a major publicity campaign in Europe to try to gain acceptance of the technology there. An open letter titled 'Let The Harvest Begin', published on Monsanto's web-site two days before World Food Day and signed by VIPs recruited from several countries, speaks of "finding new ways to meet our global need for food, while maintaining ecological balance" and "biotechnology and the promising advances it offers for our future".

Opposition to GMO's is widespread. Recently moratoria on specific crops in France and Greece have been established, the UK Environment Minister has announced it's intentions to look into a three year moratorium on the commercial cultivation of GE crops and the European Parliament Environmental Committee has called for an immediate moratorium on the approval of all new genetically modified products.

African delegates to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meeting on farmers' privilege, earlier this year, responded to Monsanto's Open Letter with 'Let Nature's Harvest Continue', in which they state: "we … strongly object that the images of the poor and hungry from our countries are being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally-friendly, nor economically beneficial to us." They also claim that "(Monsanto)'s major focus is not to protect the environment, but to develop crops that can resist higher doses of its best-selling chemical weedkiller 'Roundup'."

On 29th July this year a national coalition was formed in New Zealand that has now grown to include over ninety organisations and hundreds of individuals. RAGE (Revolt against Genetic

Engineering) has as its main objective the declaration of Aotearoa / New Zealand a GMO Free Zone until the institution of a universally accepted code of ethics and testing procedures that accurately determine that there are no possible negative effects either on human health or the environment from the release of these organisms into the food chain.

RAGE does not condemn all genetic engineering, stating that bio-technology is a valuable new science that promises exciting developments and not all genetic engineering is necessarily dangerous. Their concern is the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the food chain and that the public safety net is not in place in the same way that it is for nuclear accidents. And, they say, it may turn out that we need even more stringent mechanisms to ensure that our genetic material is not contaminated.

The legislation as it stands removes the individual's right to make a choice as to whether they expose themselves to the many potential health problems scientists say will come through eating this food. It also means consumers who suffer allergic or toxic effects will have no way of tracing their source.

Some of the hidden dangers of genetically modified organisms are:

- The process of genetic engineering can introduce dangerous new allergens and toxins into foods that were previously safe. Allergens and toxins in foods cause long-term damage.

- Ecological damage is unavoidable. The increased use of herbicides, in particular the growing volume of genetically manipulated products, are resulting in even higher concentrations of chemicals in the water run-off from the land and the food chain. When new genetic information is placed in plants, bacteria or animals it can easily transfer into related organisms through cross pollination, simple transfer of seed in wind or by birds. This has already created herbicide- and pest-resistant "super-weeds"; it is only a matter of time before we discover similarly resistant insects. Unlike nuclear contamination, gene pollution can never be cleaned up.

- Transfering animal genes into plants, the use of animal genetic material in foods and experimentation on animals all raise ethical issues for vegetarians, religious groups and many others.

The immediate objectives of RAGE are:

a) Mandatory labelling of all foods that contain genetically modified organisms.

b) A moratorium on importation and production of GMO food and seeds for a period to be determined.

c) Increased awareness of the domination of world food production and the contamination of the world's seed supplies by the commercially driven and morally unrestrained bio-tech industries.

                                                    For more information and suggestions on what action you can take to help, contact

RAGE : (04) 568-9060 or e-mail ragenz@hotmail.com, or Greenpeace: (09) 630 6317

Also, the Campaign for Food Safety website has a wealth of recent news and links to in-depth articles.