11 August 2005 Edition

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GM food fears highlighted again

Do you read the contents of the tin of sweet corn you are adding to your salad or sandwich? What is in that soy milk you are drinking? Or on that American-produced salad dressing? Well, those are questions we should all be asking ourselves since the European Union decided earlier this year to lift import bans on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). The opening of the borders has also meant increased scrutiny of commonly used GMO crops in the US, which is revealing new information about the safety of the consumption of foods produced by these crops. US consumers are discovering that many products they use everyday are deemed unsafe in Europe.

For a start, there was news, published in the British daily The Independent, reporting harmful health impacts on lab rats that were fed Monsanto's root worm resistant corn (Mon 863). Monsanto, the world largest maker of genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola and cotton appears to have disregarded their own research on the harmful impacts of their GMO corn on rats. According to The Independent which broke the story, "...secret research carried out by Monsanto shows that rats fed the modified corn had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood."

"This news couldn't have come at worse time for Monsanto which is already facing consumer mistrust of their products due to concerns over how GMO's impact on the immune system, interfere with non-GMO crops and affect long term human health," says Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumer's Association.

"European labelling laws require GMO ingredients to be listed making it easy to avoid them, but American consumers are sitting ducks since no such labelling is required. The only way to be sure you are not eating GMO ingredients is to buy certified organic products."

Monsanto's latest deception stems from submitting only a summary of a 1,139-page report on Mon 863 corn to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The summary left out the abnormalities in rats that were fed the GMO corn versus those who ate a different diet. "We demand Monsanto release the full report on the rat study which is being withheld from the science and medical community because it could be used by competitors for commercial purposes," says Cummins. Monsanto should put research on human health effects before corporate profits."

This isn't the first time GMO foods have been shown to impact on the health of rats. A study on rats fed GMO potatoes in 1998 showed similar harmful impacts on their health. At the moment Mon 863 corn is not approved for importation to Europe, but is under consideration by EFSA for approval. Two GMO ingredients have been approved by the EFSA in the past year, while over ten proposed GMO foods have not been given approval for importation during the same period.

The report does further damages the reputation of the US corporation. But governments around the world still seem quite happy to do business with Monsanto.

Failures of GMO coming to light.

In India, the official report of the Government of the State of Andhra Pradesh on the performance of genetically modified biotech (Bt) cotton in the season 2002, "shows that in North Telengana, net income from Bt varieties was five times less than the yield from local non-Bt varieties. In Southern Telengana, the income from Monsanto's Bt crop was nearly seven times less than what was obtained from the indigenous non-Bt cotton varieties, demonstrating the resounding failure of the Monsanto variety."

This ties in with a series of other studies on the first year of commercial cultivation of Monsanto's GM cotton in India by government committees and non-governmental organisations. These also supported claims of farmers that Bt cotton had inferior yields and did not perform well in the matter of pest-resistance. A six-member panel set up by the State of Gujarat government concluded Bt cotton was simply "unfit for cultivation and should be banned". Despise this strong assessment, in 2003, more than 247,000 acres of Bt cotton were planted in India — double the area in 2002, the first year Bt cotton was approved for commercial planting, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

On 23 June 2005, Greenpeace occupied the Department of Agriculture's offices in the Philippines with banners denouncing Bt Corn, a genetically engineered (GE) corn patented and owned by US company Monsanto, as a financial and environmental burden on farmers. The organisation denounced that the government of President Arroyo for allowing the commercialisation of this variety of GE corn and promoting it as profitable for small farmers, despite it proof that it is more expensive than conventional corn varieties.

A Greenpeace report entitled The Economics of Bt Corn: Whose Interest Does it really Serve?, details the exorbitant cost of planting GE corn over conventional varieties and its associated costs due to increased levels of fertiliser required.

BT corn is the GE crop of choice for introduction to Asia, as Monsanto claims it is resistant to the Asiatic Corn Borer. This is killed by means of a Bacillus incorporated into the plants genetic makeup and so it reduces the need for pesticides. However, Greenpeace states that Monsanto has not mentioned that the Bt corn also kills beneficial insects and contaminates soil.

However, Monsanto is not only showing its ugly corporate face exclusively in developing countries. It also uses its influence to keep a presence in the West. Genetically engineered crops are causing an economic disaster for farmers in the US according to a new report released by Britain's Soil Association. The report is a massive compilation of data showing that GE crops have cost US taxpayers $12 billion in farm subsidies in the past three years. "Within a few years of the introduction of GM crops, almost the entire $300 million annual US maize exports to the EU had disappeared, and the US share of the soya market had decreased," the report said. In addition, the study says that GE crops have led to the increased use of pesticides, while resulting in overall lower crop yields.

But the damage is not only inflicted on those who decide to use GM crops. It also also affects those who happen to live next to them. Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada had his Canola fields contaminated with Monsanto's genetically engineered Round-Up Ready canola by pollen from a nearby farm. Incredibly Monsanto says it doesn't matter how the contamination took place and is demanding Schmeiser pay their Technology Fee — the fee farmers must pay to grow Monsanto's genetically engineered products.

According to Schmeiser: "I never had anything to do with Monsanto, outside of buying chemicals. I never signed a contract. If I would go to St Louis (Monsanto Headquarters) and contaminate their plots — destroy what they have worked on for 40 years — I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away." Canada's Supreme Court decided on May 2004 that Monsanto's patent is valid, but Schmeiser will not be forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields.

Schmeiser's case, and the experience of many other farmers around the world shows up Monsanto, and by extension GMO technology, for what they really are — profit-making rakets without regard for the impact of their practices on people or the environment.

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