13 June 1997 Edition

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Genetic ``mistake'' raises alarm

By Robert Allen

Monsanto, the US chemical and biotechnology corporation that brought you PCBs, doctored-dioxin-data, Agent Orange, hormone-flavoured milk and genetically-engineered seeds, have shown once again that they cannot be trusted.

Last month Monsanto, which started trials on their genetically-engineered suger beet in Co Carlow on 27 May, announced that it had recalled 60,000 bags of a genetically engineered canola (rape) seed because it contained an unapproved gene.

``Putting the wrong gene into a commercial product by mistake is precisely the kind of error that opponents of genetic engineering have been predicting for a decade,'' Peter Montague of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly said last week. ``Proponents of genetic engineering have said it could never happen because of rigorous quality-assurance by the industry itself and tight regulation by governments.''

Canola is a crop grown for livestock feed, and for oil consumed by humans. Canola oil is used in low-fat foods, pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, confectionery products, margarine and shortening, personal care products, lubricants, soaps, and detergents.

The recalled canola seed was ``Roundup ready'' - meaning it had been genetically engineered to withstand dousing with Monsanto's herbicide, glyphosate, which is marketed under the trade name Roundup. Since last February Monsanto has been marketing various genetically-engineered crops that are ``Roundup-ready'' in an effort to boost sales of Roundup, the herbicide responsible for about $1.5 billion profits per year. The idea is to douse Roundup-ready crops with Roundup to kill weeds, leaving the genetically-engineered crop intact.

``Roundup is the engine that's driving Monsanto,'' said Paul Raman, a chemical industry analyst for the investment banking firm S.G. Warburg & Co. ``In five to 10 years Roundup could be a $4 billion product,'' Raman said. That extra money would come chiefly from expanding sales of crops that are genetically engineered to resist the weed killer.

Monsanto officials have remained tight-lipped about their error. According to Beth Burrows, director of the Washington based Edmonds Institute, officials with Monsanto were unable to tell her why the wrong gene got into the canola seeds. Burrows, who has been touring the 26 counties this week as a guest of Genetic Concern - an alliance of consumer and environmental groups opposed to genetic engineering, said Monsanto scientists were not saying much about their error.

Monsanto's attempts to introduce ``Round-up Ready'' genetically-engineered crops into the 26 Counties have been vigorously resisted by Genetic Concern. Last month a member of the alliance went to court to challenge the EPA's decision to grant permission to Monsanto to sow genetically-engineered sugar beet seeds. Justice Philip O'Sullivan said there was a case to be heard and this week the EPA was given three weeks to prepare their evidence.

An Phoblacht sent details of the canola controversy to the EPA but a spokesman for the agency said they could not make any comment on Monsanto because of the impending court action.

Burrows, a specialist on biotechnology, will be speaking in the County Museum, Dundalk this Thursday; Scariff Community Co-op on Friday; the Metropole Hotel in Cork on Sunday, the Larmor Lecture Hall in UCG on Monday and in the Aula Maxima in Sligo RTC on Tuesday. Details from Quentin Gargan or Iva Pocock at 01 6261652 or 088 2754857.

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