by Anil Netto

Penang, Malaysia, 13 Mar 2000 (IPS) -- Buoyed by a string of recent campaign successes, consumer groups around the world are now demanding mandatory labelling of genetically modified (GM) food as they mark World Consumer Rights Day on Mar 15, reflecting growing concern about the unregulated production and trade of GM food crops.

Mandatory labelling, insist the groups, would enable consumers to make informed choices a basic consumer right. It would also protect their right to safety by allowing any subsequent health problems to be properly identified and traced back to source.

Genetic engineering takes the DNA of genes from one organism (animals, plants, bacteria) and inserts them into a completely different organism (e.g. food crops) to transfer a desired trait. Plants are genetically modified to improve resistance to pests and weed-killers. But activists worry about the long-term effects.

Creating herbicide-tolerant crops is like "giving one plant a radiation suit, then dropping a small nuclear device to wipe out all other plant life in the area, as well as the animal life that depends on it, along with any hope of sustainable agriculture," wrote Andrew Simms of Christian Aid. Consumers are reacting with growing concern, says Julian Edwards, the director general of Consumers International, a federation of over 250 consumers' organizations in 111 countries.

Foremost is the fear that GM crops might be dangerous to eat in some way, he points out, saying that consumers face risks from the unintended effects of GM foods.

Edwards was speaking here at the launch last week of a CI campaign kit to heighten awareness of consumer rights using the theme 'Our Food, Whose Choice? Consumers Take Action on GM Foods'.

Genetic modification can transfer allergies from foods that people know they are allergic to foods they think are safe. About 2% of adults and 8% of children have true food allergies and about one quarter have reacted adversely to some type of food.

"Failure to label GM foods," says the CI campaign kit, "would mean that people with allergies have no way of knowing whether they are eating potentially risky foods or, in the event of problems, what ingredient provoked the reaction."

Activists also highlight the uncertain long-term effects on nutrition and health posed by GM foods. They point to the use of antibiotic-resistant genes as "markers" (to track the gene carrying the trait being transferred) in GM crops. This, they say, could add to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Genetic manipulation could also increase levels of natural plant toxins in foods or create entirely new toxins in unexpected ways.

"The testing has not been as rigorous as it is with medicine," says physician Nadine Gusman, a World Health Organization consultant. Gusman wondered who was carrying out the research. Were they the same firms developing the technology, she asks. The other major risk, notes Edwards, is the impact GM foods will have on the environment: "Do they support sustainable agriculture in the long run?" Critics say genes from GM crops could contaminate wild plants, which could then become resistant or toxic to certain plant pests.

The wind, birds, and insects could carry pollen from GM plants and once released may cause permanent gene pollution. Crops engineered to resist herbicide and pesticides may pass their traits on to their wild relatives and create pesticide-and herbicide-resistant super-weeds, they say.

GM organisms also threaten to diminish biological diversity, say the activists. The cultivation of GM organisms, they add, could lead to the wiping out of weeds and insects. If that happens, the species that depend on them will also suffer.

There is also the question of seed ownership by big firms through patenting and terminator technology. "Farmers in the South are angry because they don't feel that anyone should own their seeds," says Jennifer Mourin, the Safe Food Campaign Coordinator of the Pesticide Action Network's Asia-Pacific office in Penang.

The main commercially cultivated GM foods are soya, maize, rape seed (canola), potatoes and tomatoes. GM soya is present in about 60% of all soy derivatives, including vegetable oils, soy flour, lecithin and soy protein. GM corn can be found in 50% of all corn products and derivatives, such as corn starch, corn flour and corn syrup.

Over 90% of these processed foods are excluded from European Union labelling norms, the most stringent in the world. Other GM foods expected soon include rice, sugar, and beets. Animal feed is the principal market for GM crops. Some 98% of global transgenic crop acreage is accounted for by just three countries: the United States, Canada, and Argentina. The US has by far the largest acreage at 20.5 million hectares or 74% of the GM fields as of 1998.

The Rio Declaration of the 1992 Earth Summit stated that governments have to take a "better safe than sorry" approach to potential environmental and health risks. This means that the burden of proof for a product's long-term safety falls on its producer.

According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in Canada, the top five Gene Giants account for nearly two thirds of the global pesticide market, about a quarter of the commercial seed market, and virtually all the GM seed market.

The five are AstaZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Aventis. Monsanto alone controls nearly 90 percent of the GM seed market in the U.S., where farmers plant roughly half of their corn, cotton and soyfields with GM crops.

The biotech industry and many regulatory agencies argue that the composition of GM food is not chemically different from conventional ones in ways that could jeopardize their safety or nutritional value. Using this concept of "substantial equivalence", they argue that GM foods require no special safety testing or labelling.

"This is being strongly resisted by us and other national governments," says Edwards. Some activist groups would prefer an outright ban on GM foods, saying that labelling would be meaningless for illiterate people, especially in developing countries.

Although its backers say GM foods are the answer to world hunger and can produce more nutritious food, critics feel otherwise. "Are the big gains promised actually there?" asks Mourin. With GM crops, Mourin argues that pesticide use will actually go up with disastrous impact for consumers and the environment.

Consumer groups are fighting back. In a David vs Goliath battle in Brazil, the 'Instituto de Defesa do Consumidor' (IDEC) and its allies, using a campaign slogan 'GM Foods: Don't Swallow that Stuff', stopped the commercial planting of GM seeds in a country where 25% of the world 's soya is grown.

The federal court ruled in June 1999 that Monsanto had to present an environmental impact assessment before any GM soya could be planted and sold commercially.

Although some groups want a total ban on GM foods, most consumer groups recognize the strategic value of pressing for mandatory labelling.

"Labelling is the key issue," conceded a spokesperson for a Monsanto subsidiary to the press. "If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it." (SUNS4627)