Health

Tampering with the natural order

Genetically altered foods are filling North American shelves with startling speed—and scant publicity

Mark Nichols May 17 1999
Health

Tampering with the natural order

Genetically altered foods are filling North American shelves with startling speed—and scant publicity

Mark Nichols May 17 1999

Tampering with the natural order

Health

Genetically altered foods are filling North American shelves with startling speed—and scant publicity

Mark Nichols

For 40 years, Percy Schmeiser has grown canola on his farm near Bruno, Sask., about 80 km east of Saskatoon, usually sowing each crop of the oil-rich plants with seeds saved from the previous harvest. And he has never, says Schmeiser, purchased seed from the St. Louis, Mo.-based agricultural and biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. Even so, he says that more than 320 hectares of his land are now “contaminated” by Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready canola, a manmade variety produced by a controversial process known as genetic engineering. And, like hundreds of other North American farmers, Schmeiser has felt the sting of

Monsanto’s long legal arm: last August the company took the 68-year-old farmer to court, claiming he illegally planted the firm’s canola without paying a $37-per-hectare fee for the privilege.

Unlike scores of similarly accused North American farmers who have reached out-of-court settlements with Monsanto, Schmeiser fought back. He claims Monsanto investigators trespassed on his land—and that the company seed could easily have blown on to his soil from passing canola-laden trucks. “I never put those plants on my land,” says Schmeiser. “The question is, where do Monsanto’s rights end and mine begin?”

The landmark case, now before the Federal Court of Canada, has attracted

international attention because it could help determine how much control a handful of powerful biotech companies can exert over farmers. That is just one of the issues thrown up by the rapidly widening array of new crops and food products resulting from genetic engineering, a process in which scientists alter the genetic structure to improve a plant’s quality or make it resistant to insects and insecticides. Some agricultural experts and environmentalists fear that genetically altered crops may doom traditional plant varieties and wreak havoc with ecosystems. And there are unanswered questions about the possible effects on human health. “My concern is that we simply do not know what the health implications may be,” says Ann Clark, an agricultural scientist at Ontario’s University of Guelph, noting that Canadian regulators accept claims made by the biotech companies without conducting any independent studies. “Canadians think the government is looking after their interests, but it isn’t.” Although biotech foods have established a strong presence on North American food shelves during the past

Health

five years, health concerns have not surfaced as a major issue with Canadian or American consumer groups. But a heated debate has raged in Europe, and especially in Britain where a campaign against so-called Frankenstein foods led by the environmental organization Greenpeace climaxed late last month. Bowing to consumer pressure, three of the world’s largest food companies— Unilever, Nestlé and Cadbury—said they will stop using genetically engineered ingredients in their products sold in Britain. Six British supermarket chains followed suit, saying they would stop using genetically altered substances in foods bearing company labels.

Those announcements coincided with the publication of a leaked report by the British government’s chief medical officer and top scientific adviser. It urged Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government to study the effects of genetically modified food on human health, including possible “fetal abnormalities, new cancers and effects on the human immune system.”

In contrast, genetically engineered foods have arrived on Canadian supermarket shelves, and dinner tables, with starding speed and scant publicity. Since Ottawa cleared the first re-engineered farm crop in May, 1994, the number of genetically modified farm plants grown in Canada has risen to about 40. Currendy, about 2.8 million hectares—four per cent of Canadian farmland—are growing genetically modified canola, corn, potato and tomato crops. Most of the harvested produce is not segregated, but mixed in with conventionally grown foods. As a result, foods with at least some biotech characteristics are becoming pervasive—and North America has no requirements that they carry identifying labels. Experts say that many processed foods containing soy or corn products—particularly candy bars, desserts and snack foods—contain genetically modified ingredients.

Are they a health hazard? The evidence so far is inconclusive, but critics caution that genetically engineered foods could have unpredictable effects on humans, potentially running the gamut from allergic reactions all the way

to cancer and other diseases. “When you insert genes into an organism,” says Elisabeth Abergel, a geneticist at Toronto’s York University, “you’re creating new proteins. The result could be something you hadn’t expected—and we have no idea what they might do to human health over the long term.”

Evidence of possible health risks that surfaced in Scotland last year generated a heated debate. Scientist Arpad Pusztai at

Aberdeen’s Rowett Research Institute reported that rats that ate genetically modified potatoes for 110 days suffered from stunted growth and weakened immune systems. But the institute itself subsequently condemned Pusztai’s research techniques and forced him into retirement. Pusztai, an internationally respected authority on plant-generated toxins, stood by his findings. While conceding that his study was not conclusive, he said it did suggest that genetically altered crops need much more thorough testing before being consumed by humans. “We are asking for less haste and more testing,” he said.

Industry and government officials insist that biotech foods are tested before going on sale in Canada. “The approval system is rigorous and comprehensive,” says Karen McIntyre, Health Canada’s head of food biotechnology. But under

Ottawa’s current regulations, health testing for biotech foods is not mandatory. For now, biotech firms, including Monsanto, British-based Zeneca and Germany’s AgrEvo and their Canadian subsidiaries, are voluntarily submitting the results of animal studies and laboratory tests to federal regulators. A slightly tougher rule requiring firms to notify Health Canada of new genetically modified plants is expected to come into effect later this year.

Critics fear the approval process is compromised. Ottawa has made the nurturing of biotech industries a cornerstone of its industrial strategy —it poured more than $300 million into biotech research and development last year. “Federal officials,” says Abergel, “will tell you, ‘Oh, we have a great regulatory system—we know what we’re doing.’ But you have to wonder. I think there’s a big conflict of in’s terest here.” And, she adds, be| cause federal regulations do not ~ put genetically modified foods 5 into a special category—or reír quire product labelling—those foods “become sort of invisible in terms of public awareness.” The issue could become more visible. Academic scientists are beginning to express concerns about the potential for re-engineered plants to run amok. Their fear is that genetically altered plants could pass on their new genes to wild relatives and pose unknown environmental risks as they shed into the soil some of the genetic material added to make plants insect-resistant. And the possibility remains that the Canadian public will react against its lack of knowledge about what it is eating. “Canadians have heard what is going on in Europe,” says Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the federal New Democratic Party health critic. “Canadians need to know that these new foods are safe to eat, and not destructive to the environment. At the moment, we have no assurances at all.” As the alarm is rung, genetically altered food has already found its place in the Canadian diet. EZ]