From Thu Feb 8 10:30:11 2001
Date: Wed, 7 Feb 2001 21:11:11 -0600 (CST)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Canadian Scientific Panel gives GM Foods a Roasting
Organization: PACH
Article: 114736
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Genetically-Modified Foods Get a Roasting

By Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star, Tuesday 6 February 2001

SCORE ONE for those of us who eat. A prestigious scientific panel has confirmed what critics have argued all along: Genetically engineered foods aren't necessarily safe.

Ottawa will find it difficult to ignore this report, prepared by a panel of scientists working under the auspices of the Royal Society of Canada.

Not only are the credentials of the 14 scientists impeccable, but the study was prepared at the request of the federal government itself.

Ten years ago, virtually no genetically modified (GM) foods existed. Now it is hard to find food that hasn't had an alien gene inserted. Roughly 60 per cent of food sold in supermarkets contains GM ingredients—usually corn, soy or canola.

The biotech industry and its allies say these foods are as safe as their non-GM counterparts. Those who dare question this conclusion are labelled unscientific sensationalists.

Last year, for instance, when University of Guelph scientist Ann Clark publicly questioned the methods Ottawa uses to regulate GM foods, she was condemned as unethical by her boss.

Agriculture Dean Rob McLaughlin said Clark had no right to comment on GM foods because she is not considered by us to be an expert in that area.

Fellow Guelph academic Doug Powell called her report silly ... a superficial examination worthy of high school.

Guelph's agricultural school, incidentally, is a prime recipient of the biotech industry's corporate largesse.

Now it seems that Clark may not have been so silly. Her main conclusion, that research into GM foods is based on unfounded assumptions and inadequate research, has been reinforced by the Royal Society's expert panel.

Clark and other critics, such as Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians, have focused particularly on the notion of substantial equivalence used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the ostensible federal regulator. Currently, if federal regulators deem that a GM variant of, say, corn is more or less the same—in look, taste, appearance and nutritional value—as the unmodified variety, they approve it without rigorous testing.

The Royal Society panel concludes that this approach is based upon unsubstantiated assumptions that genetically-modified foods are safe.

It recommends that regulators actually investigate whether GM crops are harmful to either human health or the environment instead of just assuming they aren't.

In particular, it calls on federal regulators to apply the precautionary principle—that is to err on the side of caution when approving new GM products instead of, as at present, doing the reverse.

As the report notes, Mutations in single genes have long been known usually to produce multiple effects.

But the most damning elements of the 245-page report are those describing the unholy trinity of the Canadian biotech industry - the corporations, university researchers and federal regulators.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the report notes, is crippled by a profound internal contradiction.

On the one hand, it has a mandate to protect the public; on the other, it is charged by government with promoting the interests of the Canadian biotech industry.

As well, the agency is so secretive that not even the Royal Society scientists could see the information it uses to evaluate GM products.

In the sole case the panel was able to examine—Ottawa's evaluation of Monsanto Co.'s Roundup-Ready canola—the Royal Society scientists found the data the government used was scientifically inadequate for either a rational regulatory process or a peer-reviewed scientific publication.

As for independent academic research, the report was despairing. Because of government cutbacks, universities are increasingly dependent on corporate funding. But corporations, including those in the biotech sector, aren't anxious to fund research that might cast doubt on their products.

Scientists who concentrate their research efforts on the environmental and health risks of new technologies ... are not likely to be prime candidates for research grants from industry partners, the report notes.

The result, the panel concludes, is that it is more difficult to find funds for research aimed at the critique or evaluation of GM technology, or scientific researchers with the independence and objectivity to carry it out.

Curiously for scientists who have raised so many questions about the safety of GM food, panel members were split on the issue of whether Ottawa should require mandatory labelling of such products. That, however, was virtually its only concession to the biotech forces.

Otherwise, this report is a polite but scathing indictment—of the industry, the academic research community and, particularly, of the federal government itself.