As the controversy over genetic engineering rages on, Prince Charles and Paul McCartney have joined in the crusade against genetically modified food, whilst the threat to the existence of a much-beloved butterfly as a result of a biotech crop has aroused passionate resistance. With genetically modified products being pushed off the shelves in rich countries, developing countries must be on the alert against such products being dumped on them.

By Martin Khor

June 1999

What do Prince Charles, Paul McCartney and the monarch butterfly have in common?

Not much. But these are not common times. The three have recently been embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of our times: the safety or otherwise of genetic engineering (GE).

Biotechnology companies like Monsanto say that GE technology can improve agricultural yields and the food it helps produce is absolutely safe for us to eat.

Not so, say the critics, and they are growing in numbers and force by the day. According to many scientists, environmental and consumer groups and high-profile individuals, GE can destroy the environment (including plant and animal life) and genetically modified (GM) foods can harm humans.

The debate has gone on for several years but it heated up in February when the London Guardian reported on the sacking of a British scientist whose tests showed up the dangers of a GM food. Dr Arpad Pusztai had found that rats fed on GM potatoes after 10 days suffered a weakened immune system and severe impairment in the development of internal organs such as the heart, liver, kidney and brain.

These findings were suppressed by his employers, the Rowett Research Institute and he was ousted in August 1998.

More recent research by Dr Stanley Ewen at Aberdeen University Medical School (showing rats fed on GM potatoes suffered an enlarged stomach wall) seemd to confirm Pusztai's findings.

An international group of 20 scientists also supported the findings after analysing his data and results.

Last August, Dr Pusztai said in a TV interview he would not eat GM food and found it 'very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs'. Two days later he was suspended and later forced to retire by his institute.

The scandal hit the headlines and has not abated since.

The British Premier Tony Blair insisted that GM foods were safe and that Britain would continue to support its biotech firms.

But the British Medical Association came out with a report warning of the dangers of GE foods. And the charity group, Christian Aid, said GM crops were irrelevant to ending hunger.

Newspapers carried screaming headlines about 'Frankenstein Foods' and public opinion swung overwhelmingly against GE.

As the biotech companies and the British government tried their best to stem the damage by continuing to insist on the safety of GE, Prince Charles added his considerable weight to the debate.

In an article in the English newspapers, the ecologically aware Prince asked (and partially answered) 10 questions about GM food.

Do we need GM food? Not at all, said Prince Charles. The benefits are limited to the people who own the technology.

Is GM food safe to eat? Only independent research over a long period can provide the answer.

How will consumers be able to choose? If crops can be contaminated by GM crops grown near by, people who want to eat natural real food will be denied that choice. 'That seems to me to be wrong,' said the Prince.

Are GM crops the only way to feed the world? That argument sounds like emotional blackmail, said Charles. African countries think differently, that 'it will destroy the diversity, local knowledge and sustainable agriculture systems and undermine our capacity to feed ourselves'.

What sort of world do we want to live in? 'Are we going to allow the industrialisation of Life itself, redesigning the natural world for the sake of convenience and embarking on an Orwellian future?' asked Charles.

'Or should we be adopting a gentler, more considered approach, seeking always to work with the grain of Nature in making better, more sustainable use of what we have, for the long-term benefit of mankind as a whole?'

Press reports said the Prime Minister Tony Blair was irritated and angry with the Prince's intervention. But the Environment Minister seemd to agree, saying the 10 questions raised were 'perfectly legitimate'.

He added the Christian Aid report (referred to by Charles) was 'basically correct' and the idea that GM crops are an answer to feeding the world is 'preposterous'.

In early June, Sir Paul McCartney of Beatles fame, added another celebrity blow against GM foods when he told a press conference that Tony Blair was wrong to support GM food and that people were right to be worried.

He announced he is spending £3 million to ensure the vegetarian meal range created by his late wife was completely GM-free.

Sir Paul revealed sales of Linda McCartney Foods fell after a BBC report that they contained a trace of GM contamination in soya. The company has now removed soya from its products and replaced it with wheat.

(About 55% of the soya crop in the US is grown using genetically modified seeds, whilst there is no GM wheat currently grown.)

Sir Paul added the brand will campaign against GM food with every pack of its 38 varieties carrying the stamp 'Say No to GMO.'

Over in the US, there has been another explosive revelation about the ecological harm that GM crops can cause. Evidence has emerged that the pollen from corn which had been genetically engineered to contain a toxin gene can unintentionally kill the monarch butterfly.

This butterfly is much beloved by Americans, and the revelation about the potential harm to it is arousing a strong public reaction against GM crops.

In May, the respected Nature journal carried a report by scientists at Cornell University (US) that in a laboratory experiment, the pollen from GE corn containing a toxin gene called Bt killed 44% of the monarch butterfly caterpillars which fed on milkweed leaves dusted with the pollen.

In the same experiment, caterpillars fed with conventional (non-engineered) pollen all survived.

'The results are all the more shocking given the fact that nearly 25% of the US corn crop now contains the Bt transgene and the Corn Belt states of the Midwest are where half the monarch butterflies are produced each year,' says author Jeremy Rifkin, one of the earliest persons to sound the alarm on biotechnology many years ago.

'In the wake of the monarch butterfly study, a growing number of scientists now say they wonder about the potential environmental effects of scores of other genetically engineered crops being introduced into agricultural fields.

'Indeed some critics are asking: why weren't these and other studies done before introducing genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton and other crops over millions of acres of farm land?'

In light of the study, Friends of the Earth USA has also written to President Bill Clinton to demand that the US stop trying to force GM food on the Europeans, that labelling of GM foods and crops be made compulsory and that a moratorium be put on further planting of GM crops.

'The failure of your Administration to exercise more careful control over genetic engineering has unleashed a frightening experiment on the people of the US and our environment,' said FOE's President, Brent Blackwelder, calling for a removal of the regulatory framework on biotechnology.

Meanwhile, as opinion polls show that the public in Europe overwhelmingly reject GM foods, the food companies and supermarket chains are quickly withdrawing GM ingredients from their processed foods.

In April, Nestle UK and Unilever UK announced they would remove GM ingredients from their food products in Britain.

The UK supermarket chain Sainsbury also said it would not sell any GM products under its own label and had formed a consortium of major food retailers including Marks and Spencer (UK), Carrefour (France), Migros (Switzerland), Delhaiz (Belgium) and Effelunga (Italy) which will jointly source GM-free products.

And the Greek government has called for a Europe-wide moratorium of all commercial releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and of trade in GE seeds.

Announcing this in April, the Greek Deputy Environment Minister Theodoros Koliopanos also said all experimental plantings of GMOs pending in Greece had been rejected.

He added Greece would seek to form an alliance with like-minded European governments to block any further approvals of GMOs.

According to a Greenpeace statement, only Spain among European Union countries is presently commercially planting a GM crop (maize containing Bt toxin).

Planting of the same maize is banned in France, Austria and Luxembourg whilst Britain and Denmark have a 'voluntary agreement' preventing commercial releases.

A meeting of European Environment Ministers on 24-25 June is expected to tighten the rules regulating GM crops.

All these developments should be closely watched by governments in developing countries, where either no laws or very weak regulations exist to control GM foods and crops.

As the safety laws improve in the developed countries, there is a danger that the biotechnology firms will shift their markets and products to developing countries.

Third World people cannot afford to be guinea pigs or victims of unwanted GM products! - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Martin Khor is Director of Third World Network.