17th September, 1999.
In "GM foods fear irrational" (CM Friday 17/9) the minister for agriculture, Mr Truss, claims that hysteria in the marketplace is making sensible debate on genetically modified foods "almost impossible".
This is hardly surprising given that the prestigious scientific bodies and the multinational agribusiness companies involved have fast tracked extensive farming of the new GM foods and their introduction into the food chain. Consultation with those who will be expected to consume these foods should have been undertaken at a much earlier stage. Failure to do this has resulted in European and Japanese consumers rejecting the GM foods. Deutch Bank in Europe has advised its clients to off-load stocks which rely on the new biotechnology as their future profitability is now in doubt.
The benefits of genetic engineering in medicine cannot be disputed. New drugs and diagnostic techniques have resulted. However, research and ethics in medicine are much more closely scrutinised and controlled than those in agriculture. The company marketing Round-up (Zero) resistant soybeans has applied to regulatory bodies in the US to have the acceptable residues of Round-up in soy beans increased by 200%. The same company is the major world supplier of Round-up. Should consumers be forced to accept an increase in pesticide residues? It was not until millions of acres of crops carrying the Bt gene were planted in the US and Europe that it was realised that the Bt pollen kills the monarch butterfly and disables ladybugs!
When a gene is inserted into a plant cell, a control gene has to be inserted to ensure that the new gene will be expressed in the plant. Unfortunately, this control gene can theoretically affect the expression of other genes within the plant. How do we know that foods that are currently beneficial to us will remain so? Round-up resistant soybeans have been shown to have 10 to 15 % less phytoestrogens than traditional soybeans. It is these plant oestrogens that confer benefits in menopausal women.
The CSIRO has wisely introduced a 5-year moratorium on the release of new GM crops in Australia. Much more testing of the environmental effects of these crops and of the health effects of the new foods needs to be undertaken. Australia should certainly endeavour to remain at the forefront of this research but we should ensure that terrible and irreversible mistakes are not made. Mr Beattie needs to reconsider his plan to site Gene-tech labs and greenhouses in densely populated parts of Brisbane.
Dr Jenny Byth
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