Mutants on your plate

Mon, 08/29/2005 - 00:00
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One villager reported that Monsanto reacted to the incident by sending a team which held a fiesta where they cooked, served and ate GM corn. The villagers refused to touch the stuff.

Peczon says that a government medical team sent to investigate the Philippine companies have been importing GM soya meal from the US and using it in drinks, meat products, and tortilla chips without any labels to indicate the ingredients are bioengineeredoutbreak could find no evidence it was caused by Bt corn blossoms. "The likelihood is that they were exposed to pesticide." He pointed out that many scientists believe Dr. Traavik was too hasty in his claims and have asked him to submit all his data as well as research methods. He reportedly hasn't responded. "There's been silence all throughout the year," Peczon said, adding that a thorough study would probably take years.

In fact, when he gave his press conference last year, Dr. Traavik said "it is crucial more independent studies are done before seeds are planted. Once they are in the ground, it is too late. The consequences could be catastrophic."

According to Greenpeace, once Bt corn is planted, it will eventually cross-breed with ("contaminate" is the word Greenpeace uses) traditional corn varieties. This could produce mutant corn crops with unknown characteristics. But. Peczon scoffs at such fears. "(they talk about ) super weed corn - is it really a threat to our people?" He concedes there will be uncontrolled gene transfer, but "it will be to crops not native to the Philippines - corn isn't native here."

It isn't just corn that Greenpeace is worrying about, though. It notes that Philippine companies have been importing GM soya meal from the US and using it in drinks, meat products, and tortilla chips without any labels to indicate the ingredients are bioengineered. Ocampo says that "the government has refused to answer calls to pass a mandatory labelling law for products containing GMOs."

Yet when asked if Greenpeace is against all GM techniques, including those used to produce medical products such as insulin, Ocampo replies, "the use of GMOs in a contained environment is something Greenpeace does not campaign against, though we oppose patents on life."

The sides in the GM debate are not only clear, they also tend to resemble each other in their zeal. In their fervor, the scientists who push for biotechnology sound exactly like the agricultural experts in the 1960s who confidently predicted that the Green Revolution would solve world hunger. It didn't. There are also GM supporters who say they wouldn't mind eating all the Bt corn given to them, they're not worried about any allergic effects. They ignore the point that others are going to end up eating the stuff as well, and have a.right to be concerned about the outcome.

Anti-GM activists aren't above using misleading rhetoric themselves. The Greenpeace website carries a statement about "strawberries with fish genes" - a story that has been debunked as an urban legend by Cornell University. Of course, the point is that genetic engineers could produce such a fruit if they wanted to, and the consequences aren't totally predictable.

Much of the debate on GM swirls around effects. Both sides agree that the long-term effects of GMOs cannot be predicted with 100 per cent accuracy. Opponents want to wait until more figures are in; advocates think that a decade of using certain GMOs is surely enough validation time.

"What is the cost of not doing anything?", asks BCP's Dr. Peczon, stressing his own organization is for "safe and responsible use of GMOs - we will only use it for addressing issues relevant to Filipinos."

The question is whether a decade is a long enough time to fully understand the effects of a new technology. According to scientist Jared Diamond, it took researchers 20 years to establish that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigerators were destroying the atmosphere. Ironically, CFCs were initially used to replace a coolant - ammonia - that was considered toxic. And nobody should forget that even on something as mundane and widespread as using mobile phones, the jury isn't in yet on whether it's harmful .

Cornell University notes carefully that on the issues of health and environment effects of GMOs, there are not enough data to make any predictions. And a four-year old article on the US journal Science observes that "a .review of existing scientific literature reveals that key experiments on both the environmental risks and benefits (of genetically engineered organisms) are lacking. "

But one thing seems clear: the time will come when nobody will be able to use the cliché, "you are what you eat." And that will be because nobody will know for sure just what it is he is eating.

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