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FROM THE TORONTO STAR




Feb. 5, 2001.  
 
 

Disturbing questions about altered foods

The value of the Royal Society of Canada's report on biotechnology, released yesterday, lies in the disturbing questions it raises. They are not new questions, but rarely have they been raised in this country by such an esteemed group of scientists. When the panel was appointed by the federal government to study the future and safety of biotechnology more than a year ago, critics feared it would produce an unquestioning endorsement of genetic modification. It has not. In fact, the society's 265-page analysis stands as a testament to the value of independent scientific research, which is all too rare during these days of corporate control of the research budgets at our universities. Consumer concern about genetically modified foods has been growing steadily. These products were slipped into the marketplace without buyers' knowledge and with no labelling to identify which foods are affected. Critics, meanwhile, have pointed out serious problems with Canada's regulatory standards, conflicts of interest among regulators and scientists, and secretive research methods used to make and approve genetically modified foods. The Royal Society's report will do little to calm those fears. In fact, it says they are well-founded, lamenting that the ``integrity'' of biotechnology itself is at risk. In particular, the society disparages the poorly defined ``substantial equivalence'' standard used to approve genetically modified foods. Under this standard, used by countries around the world, genetically modified foods are approved if they are considered substantially equivalent to traditional foods. The Royal Society says this is ``scientifically unjustifiable'' and calls for independent scientific testing of new foods to ensure they are safe for humans, animals and the environment. Its recommendations would raise the bar for approving genetically modified foods in Canada and open the industry to greater public scrutiny - much-needed measures that in turn would soothe public worries about this new technology. The Royal Society also explores the socio-economic impact of biotechnology, the ethics of ``playing God'' with other species and the need to label genetically modified foods, rightfully calling for a broad public debate on these issues. Ottawa wanted clear direction from the Royal Society on how to proceed with biotechnology. It got that, and must now act quickly on the advice. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Feb. 6, 2001.

Biotech foods trigger allergy concerns Federal safety rules inadequate, scientists charge

Peter Calamai SCIENCE REPORTER OTTAWA - Existing science and federal safety regulations aren't up to the job of protecting Canadians from a big jump in allergic reactions when the next wave of genetically modified foods hits the grocery store shelves, says a report commissioned by the federal government. These new transgenic foods could include a potato already being grown experimentally in B.C. that has been doctored with a protein from bee venom to boost resistance to bacteria and fungus. ``Commercialization of this genetically modified potato could sensitize consumers to honeybee venom and thus predispose them to a potentially lethal insect sting allergy,'' warns the report from a group of scientific experts. This would only happen if a specific part of the venom protein made it into the potato and wasn't detected, the experts say, but current safety tests can't rule out that prospect. And so pervasive are genetically modified foods in Canada - two-thirds of all processed food already contain some transgenic component - that other entirely new allergies could gallop through the population, starting with babies in the womb or being breast fed. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- `Commercialization of this genetically modified potato could sensitize consumers to honeybee venom.'- Royal Society report -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ``The baby does not have to eat the genetically modified food. All that has to happen is that the mother eats it,'' said Dr. Antony Ham Pong, an allergy specialist in Ottawa and one of 14 scientific experts who reviewed the government's policing of food biotechnology. The allergy alert was one of the few undisputed messages to emerge here yesterday at the end of a day of sniping between federal regulators and members of the expert panel which the government asked the Royal Society of Canada to set up in November, 1999. The experts concluded that health officials often let biotech companies take a shortcut through the safety process by accepting the transgenic food as no different than a new variety produced by conventional breeding. But Karen Dodds, in charge of biotechnology for Health Canada, told a news conference that internal department records show this shortcut was not allowed for the 48 transgenic foods so far approved. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Biotechnology researcher pays the price

Thomas Walkom STAR COLUMNIST Feb. 13, 2001 SCIENCE IS an odd business. Most of us think of it as the preserve of independent truth-seekers. But as the curious case of Arpad Pusztai demonstrates, science - like everything else - exists within a context. A scientist can scrupulously follow the rules of his discipline. But if his research suggests conclusions that those in authority do not wish to hear, he risks excommunication. Pusztai is a Hungarian-born British biochemist. Over 49 years, he has published more than 250 scholarly articles and books. All have been peer-reviewed, which is to say examined by others in his field to ensure that they are solid enough for publication. In 1995, Aberdeen's Rowett Institute hired him to oversee research into the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops. One of the key research groups was headed by his wife, Susan Bardocz, herself a highly trained and much-published biochemist. In Britain, as in Canada, GM crops are not actually tested by government regulators. Rather, regulators examine the results of tests performed by the companies which created the crops. If the companies say everything's fine, government regulators usually agree. Pusztai's research into a certain brand of genetically modified potato was, therefore, unique. Unlike most GM research, it was not financed corporately and therefore not bound by strict commercial confidentiality agreements. Rather, it was funded, to the tune of 1.6 million pounds ($3.5 million) by the British government. ``We were pretty sure it (the GM potato) was okay,'' said Bardocz over lunch yesterday. ``We all started as a pro GM group.'' ``Otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten 1.6 million pounds,'' added Pusztai. As the study wore on, however, the team began to notice disturbing results. The potatoes seemed to affect the immune systems of rats. In early 1998, Pusztai mentioned this tentative finding on a BBC television show. No one seemed to care. ``There was no response,'' he said. However, during the next seven months, GM food became a hot topic. When Pusztai - with the full approval of his institute - repeated his comments on another television show the following August, media reaction was intense. For two days, he said, the Rowett Institute was thrilled by the publicity. The British government, however, was not. Neither were the biotech multinationals. For Pusztai had called into question the whole game. If the only GM crop ever to be properly and independently tested in Britain was not safe, what were consumers to make of the genetically engineered foods they were already eating? On the third day, Pusztai was suspended and his team disbanded. A gag order was placed on all scientists at the institute. Bardocz was let go. Pusztai received some support from colleagues in Britain and abroad. But in February, 1999, 19 scientists belonging to Britain's prestigious Royal Society attacked his research as bad science. A month later, another Royal Society panel, this one anonymous, dismissed his study as ``flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis.'' It seemed a damning judgment. In some parts of the British press, he was derided as a quack. Too soon, it seems. In October, 1999, one of Britain's leading peer-reviewed medical journals, The Lancet, agreed to publish some of Pusztai's findings - including his controversial conclusion that rats fed GM potatoes suffered damage to the immune systems of their digestive tracts. What's more, the editor of The Lancet reported that he had been warned by a senior member of the Royal Society that he could be fired if he went through with publishing the Puzstai paper. Several key members of Britain's Royal Society are partisans of GM crops. Some have been on the payrolls of biotech firms. The Lancet published the paper anyway. Pusztai and Bardocz now travel the world lecturing on the science, or lack thereof, of GM testing. Last week, they were in New Zealand testifying before a Royal Commission. This week, they are in Canada courtesy of Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians. They have been hired to design a Norwegian research project into the effect of GM food on farmed salmon. They have received offers to teach in Brazil. But in much of Europe, they remain on an unofficial blacklist. They were approached by a Spanish research project. But, says Bardocz, when the multinational biotech firm behind the project learned of their involvement, it pulled the plug. Perhaps most curious, given the reaction to their work from the biotech establishment, both still support genetic engineering. ``I'm not fundamentally and ideologically against genetic modification,'' says Pusztai. ``I'm just against the unscientific, untested first generation of genetic modification. ``If we could get rid of this first generation of GM crops, it would be better for us all.''