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The Tempest in the Bean Pot

International turmoil over genetically-manipulated soy


We could all be healthier if we ate more of the soybeans that we now grind up and feed to cows.  The little round bean may well be the planet's best single source of human food and medicine.  The leguminous plants even have the ability to restore nitrogen to worn-out soils.  It seems strange that so many western hemisphere people have not become acquainted with such a valuable food.


Soybeans are an excellent source of both protein and carbohydrates, are free of cholesterol and low in fat. They are rich in B vitamins, calcium, fiber, and phytoestrogens.  They help guard against stroke and heart attack, osteoporosis, and menopausal side effects.  Soy protein is even sold as a food supplement.


All of this helps to explain why so many people world-wide do not want their soybeans contaminated with genes from other organisms.  It also calls into question the attitudes of the governments of several English-speaking contries (US, UK, Australia and New Zealand) which seem

eager to promote genetically-manipulated soy products.


In the last issue of CivAb , we described how the American ambassador to New Zealand had, improperly in our opinion, pressured the New Zealand health minister to kill a proposed law that would have required products from genetically-manipulated crops to be so labeled.  Instead of lodging a complaint or expelling the ambassador, the New Zealand government dismissed its own health minister, presumably for non-compliance with administration policy.


This incident was followed by an even worse scenario in Australia where the Monsanto application to the Australia NZ Food Authority for a 200-fold increase in the allowable levels of the company's herbicide, Roundup, is being seriously considered for both conventional soybeans and those from genetically-manipulated (GM) plants known as "Roundup ready" beans because they can tolerate heavy doses of that herbicide,


Monsanto's application seeks to raise the maximum allowable level of Roundup in all soybeans from 1 mg/kg to 20 mg/kg, a 200-fold increase.


The Australian National Registration Authority on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals supports this huge increase because it is "consistent with good farm practice in North America" and is "technically justified."


US farmers growing ordinary, i.e. non-GM, soy are encouraged to defoliate the plants just before harvest so that the plants' leaves and stems do not clog their harvesting machines.  (This is also common practice before harvesting potatoes.)  Confidence in American foods was further shaken recently when the Consumers Union found pesticide levels in apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash at levels considered unsafe for young children.


In Britain, Tony Blair's Labour government is under assault for appointing Lord Sainsbury of Turville as science minister in his cabinet.  Sainsbury put all his holdings in a blind trust before accepting the appointment, but the supermarket tycoon is still the holder of a patent applicable to GM and has "widespread" interests in GM food companies like Diatech, Innotech, Paradigm Genetics (in North Carolina), Floranova (a seed and plant distributor), and Four Oaks Nursery, to say nothing of a GM tomato marketed as a puree.  He was a substantial contributor

(c. #3 million) to the New Labour Party.


With "mad cows", e. coli, and salmonella scares still fresh in the public mind, it is not surprising that GM technology is viewed with grave reservations.  There was another e. coli outbreak in Cumbria in early March.


Local Councils are demanding that GM foods be banned from school menus, hospitals, Meals on Wheels, and old people's homes until at least 2004.


A report by Ian Foulkes, head of environmental protection and health, warned that inserting genes from organisms or animals that had not previously been consumed as food, could cause the formation of new proteins that would be potential human allergens.


The report also pointed out the danger that plants harboring insecticide genes could kill beneficial insects as well as those humans consider pests; the danger of GM crops interbreeding with wild plants and creating superweeds; and the problem of airborne cross pollination contaminating organic farms.


Organic farmer Prince Charles entered the fray by stating: "I believe that GM is much more than just an extension of selective breeding techniques.  Mixing genetic material from species that cannot breed naturally takes us into areas that should be left to God.  We should not be meddling with the building blocks of life in this way . . . I am not convinced we know enough about the long-term consequences for human health and environment of releasing plants (or, heaven forbid, animals) bred in this way.


The prince also expressed the fear that GM would result in the use of more, rather than less, herbicides with devastating effects on wildlife.

(Wonder what he thinks chasing and killing foxes and shooting birds and other animals does.)


The Labour Government went so far as to commission a favorable article on GM foods by Prof. Jonathan Jones, a biotechologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory financed by a Sainsbury charity and shared with John Innes, a major fertilizer company.  The Government then attempted to peddle the report to the media.


Friends of the Earth retaliated by rounding up 21 "top international scientists" to speak out against exposing the public to GM foods.  It turned out that most of these scientists were colleagues of Dr Arpad Pusztai who was fired from his job at the Rowett Institute in August after announcing that he had perceived weakened immunity and changes in the vital organs of rats fed Monsanto's GM potatoes.


The picture is garbled, however, as there seem to have been experiments involving snowdrop (galanthus) genes instead of cauliflower mosaic genes in one set of potatoes, and poison from the jackbean plant added to another lot of potatoes after they were grown rather than incorporated in their genetic makeup.


An editorial in New Scientist twitted scientists for "tucking into" GM tomatoes on television as a publicity stunt when their seeds could possibly generate later on sewage farms.  It went on to editorialize that GM has to be considered within the context of existing concerns for wildlife already decimated by agricultural poisons, intensive farming practices, and lost habitat.  Is GM more of a threat than these?  Are farmers more trustworthy than Monsanto?


Prof. John Burns of Newcastle University said:  "I think the American GM food industrialists have misjudged the British and European mood.  It would be wise to have a moratorium on further planting if for no other reason that that the public reaction is likely to lead to further vandalism which is not good for anyone.


Prof. Semir Zeki of University College, London opined:  "Given the assurances about beef, only a madman would take what the Government spokesmen say at face value."


The government's advisory body, English Nature, has recommended a moratorium on all GM crops that involve herbicide and insect-resistant crops until further scientific assessments are made.


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Volume 10  Issue 1                                                                                                                       Spring 1999


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