27 February 1997 Edition

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Underground monsters

The side effects of genetically-engineered food are unknown yet it may soon be grown in Ireland. Robert Allen reports.

Another new columnist

We are pleased to announce that Robert Allen, journalist and author of two books on environmental issues, will now be writing a regular column for An Phoblacht. His wide knowledge and years of campaigning make him an authority whose views are not to be missed.

Coming soon to a field near you is the agrichemical industry's latest blockbuster - the Frankenstein Seed.

And keeping with the modern world this is an interactive production. You can, if you remain ignorant and apathetic, become part of this great experiment with the crops we depend on for our daily foods.

Monsanto - the chemical company who brought us PCBs, Agent Orange and hormone-flavoured milk while doctoring studies on the toxicology of dioxin - want the Environmental Protection Agency to grant them a licence to grow genetically engineered sugar beet on farms in counties Carlow, Cork and Kilkenny.

Before you know it, the sugar you slip into your tea or coffee will never be the same again - and neither might you, because the toxic side effects from manipulated genes is not known and may never be known.

Genetic engineering (GE) is basically gene splicing - taking genes from whatever source you like, bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, and putting them wherever you wish. It's done by the multinational chemical industry who stand to make billions and ultimately gain a monopoly over global food production.

Monsanto are driving GE. They began in 1984 , spending $300million on their growth hormone rBGH - given to dairy cattle to increase their milk yield - and now are pushing GE sugar beet and soya beans.

A genetically engineered organism released into the environment could wipe out existing, natural species
Their choice of crops is significant. Soya ingredients make up 60 percent of processed food and can be found in bread, beer, biscuits, baby food, cakes, confectionery - the list goes on. Sugar is an ingredient in far too many foodstuffs to mention.

GE Sugar Beet and the other crops being manipulated - apples, cotton, corn, rapeseed oil - are already being grown and added to everyday produce. GE tomatoes (flavr savr) are on the market in the form of tomato puree.

So what's the problem, you ask, if these crops can ensure that food production remains constant and resistant to pests and the weather? The problem is that these crops are being grown without concern to their environmental, health and social effects.

A genetically engineered organism released into the environment could wipe out existing, natural species - thus altering the biodiversity of the region under attack.

The impact on human health is beyond our comprehension simply because scientists - including those beavering away in Monsanto on GE organisms - cannot say what the effect will be.

We already know what the social impact will be. In Madagascar and south east Asia GE vanilla extract will undercut the livelihoods of 100,000 families.

And before you ask, Monsanto and all those other chemical companies who are frantically trying to keep up with them in the race for GE supremacy, cannot produce GE seeds any quicker than nature does. To transform commercial farming 400,000 tonnes of seeds would need to be manufactured and that would still take up to ten years.

Anyway, you say, I can refuse to buy foods which have been genetically engineered. Sorry! You can't. GE foods are not being labelled and anyone who says their food is GE-free might face prosecution from Monsanto and the rest.

In the meantime GE food is coming to your local supermarket quicker than you can say `sugar'. Last autumn US farmers harvested the first crops of GE soya beans - making up 2 percent of the soya bean crop. Already these GE soya beans have been processed along with natural soya beans and are now in many of the foodstuffs we buy and eat daily.

GE soya beans have a history - which is a cautionary tale. During one of the early attempts to grow GE soya beans, a brazil nut gene was inserted into the soya bean - the Monsanto scientists didn't know whether individuals allergic to brazil nuts would be affected, but they were. Another crop, designed to ward off pests, became toxic and left the soil infertile.

But Monsanto have now gone even further and made their soya bean resistant to one of their own herbicides - Roundup Biactive, so enthusiastic farmers find they can use Roundup Ready Soya with the herbicide to kill weeds and protect the crop.

Between 1993 and 1995 GE rapeseed was grown in Britain. Once the trials were completed the company responsible was given permission to market the GE rapeseed - which is resistant to the Hoeschst herbicide Basta - without any research into the environmental consequences. Rape is known to cross fertilise with wild mustard, so fears that the GE rape might spread to wild plants is legitimate.

By making the GE crops resistant to specific herbicides the agrichemical industry is cynically encouraging farmers to spray these chemicals. And by making farmers use GE seeds they are ensuring that they come back to the suppliers for more because the seed cannot be resown.

However the chemical industry are not having it their own way. Monsanto have faced direct action from anti-GE campaigning groups, in the US and in Denmark where protesters occupied the company's offices. In the US Greenpeace sprayed a huge `X' on a field of soya beans. In Britain Unilever have been targeted because they have agreed to process GE food. In Germany 3000 sugar beet plants were mysteriously destroyed one night. In Holland a group calling themselves the Seething Spuds wrecked a field of spuds.

Meanwhile some companies, Cadbury's for example, have been insensitive enough to announce that they will use GE produce - this despite the events of December 14 last year - the International Day of Action against Genetic Engineering - which saw supermarket customers all over Europe leafleted about the dangers of GE.

You have been warned.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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