The Guardian April 5, 2000


Just Eat Me!:
Genetically Modified food and you

When Alice went through the rabbit hole and saw a bottle of something 
with "Drink me" written on it, she paused before she did and thought about 
the warnings she had had  "don't drink or eat something if you don't know 
if it is good for you".

Unlike Alice, Australians are being told not to ask questions about what it 
is that they are putting on their tables, but instead to embrace 
genetically modified foods (GM) in their stride. This article contains 
basic information on genetic engineering (GE) and what you buy  or don't 
buy.

Untested, unassessed and unlabelled, genetically modified foods are sitting 
on supermarket shelves.

Genetic engineering (GE) allows genes to be transferred across species 
boundaries, from any living organism into any other  animals to humans, 
humans to bacteria, microbes to plants and so on.

This could never happen in nature or through traditional breeding, where 
sows deliver piglets and roses make rosebuds.

Genetically engineered foods are not just an extension of long-accepted and 
practiced selective breeding practices that brought us new wheat varieties 
and cattle breeds.

Traditional breeding could not produce organisms beyond the limits of 
natural reproduction. Cross-pollination, hybridisation and mating cannot 
cross species boundaries.

In contrast, genetic engineering takes genes from anywhere on the tree of 
life and transfers them anywhere else. A major risk is pollution of the 
gene pools on which the continued development of natural systems and our 
food stocks depend.

Cutting and splicing genes in the test tube cannot show how the genes and 
new organisms will behave outside the laboratory, nor how they might behave 
if they infiltrate other, non-target species.

The risks to human health and environment are so large and uncertain that 
insurance companies will not insure the industry.

Nevertheless, genetically modified food is being pushed by corporations and 
pliant states oblige by pretending that it is the only way to go.

Few issues have caused so much debate and concern as this one. From Europe 
to Africa consumers are calling for caution.

GE food on supermarket shelves

The Australian authorities have been very secretive in regards GM food 
production.

It is only now that we are learning about genetically modified crops being 
grown in Australia commercially.

GE foods in the supermarket

Genetically engineered foods which are found in Australia include: 
Soybean: used in soy foods including soy beverages, tofu, soy oil, 
soy flour, lecitin. Also may be found in breads, pastries, snack foods, 
baked products, fried products, edible oil products and special purpose 
foods.

Canola (rape seed oil): Canola oil. Included in edible oil products, 
fried foods, baked products, snack foods.

Corn: corn oil, flour, sugar or syrup. Also included in snack foods, 
baked goods, fried foods, edible oil products, confectionery, special 
purpose foods, soft drinks.

Potato: may be included in snack foods, processed potato products 
and other processed foods.

Sugarbeet: may be contained in any processed foods containing sugar.

Cotton: cottonseed oil and linters. Found in blended vegetable oils, 
fried foods, baked foods, snack foods, edible oil products, small goods 
casings.

GE-free zones

Two local councils in NSW and Victoria have already banned genetically 
modified foods from their childcare centres. 

A first for Australia, the decision was made because of growing concern 
that these foods may not be safe, especially for children.

In the UK, for instance, more than 300 local councils have banned 
genetically modified foods. New Zealand has two GE-free municipalities.

In Waverly, NSW suppliers of food to Waverly Council childcare centres have 
been asked to guarantee that their products are free from genetically 
engineered organisms (GE-free).

"Up until now we and our children have been unwitting participants in a 
food experiment and it must stop. We have the right to know and the right 
to choose", said Paul Pearce, the Mayor of Waverly.

If suppliers cannot give assurances that a food is GE-free it is prohibited 
from any childcare centre under council control.

The response from the wider community to the council's actions has been 
very positive with faxes, letters and emails of support from all over the 
country.

Moreland City Council is Victoria's first local council to ban the use of 
genetically altered food.

"For those not in a position to make an informed decision, such as infants 
in creches and those receiving meals-on-wheels, the council must adopt an 
approach that is precautionary and responsible", Councillor Melanie Raymond 
believes.

"Too little research has been done on the nutritional and environmental 
impacts and the increase of pesticides in our food chain is a concern", she 
said.

It is worth noting that top overseas restaurants are adamant about their 
restaurants being GE-free.

There has been a huge debate about genetically modified food in Britain, 
and the debate still continues. The British Government has been pushing the 
GE barrel for all its worth. Meanwhile, the house of Commons dining room 
serves only GE-free food!

Why worry?

The ecological and health threats of genetic engineering are many.

For example, crops that are genetically engineered tolerate being sprayed 
with pesticides encourage greater use of chemicals, and transfer of their 
genes to related species may lead to super weeds.

Labelling

Labelling of GE food is an absolute necessity but it is very slow in 
coming.

One way of making sure that you buy what you want is to check the existing 
labels for the presence of GE ingredients.

It may seem time-consuming but if you do your checking for the basics you 
buy every week, it becomes easier.

Contact the processors and distributors and ask for a written reply as to 
whether their products contain GE ingredients. The numbers can be found on 
their packaging or use those listed below (1800 numbers are free). Ask for 
a written reply.

Franklins Supermarkets 1800 621 111
Coles Supermarkets 1800 061 562
Woolworths supermarkets 1800 066 596
Arnotts 1800 242 492
Australian Natural Foods 1800 641 614
Dairy Farmers 1800 627 624
Goodman Fielder 1800 025 764
Heinz 1800 037 058
Kraft 1800 033 275
Masterfoods 1800 816 016
Nestles 1800 025 361
Old El Paso 1800 677 774
QUF Industries 1800 067 439
Sanitarium 1800 673 392
Schweppes 1800 244 054
Smiths 1800 025 789
Wyeth 1800 552 229.

Major supermarkets have "suggestion boxes" because, as they put it, "they 
value the opinion of their customers". It is a good way to let then know 
how you feel about labelling or not labelling GE foods. 

Local councils should be encouraged to declare all their food services GE-
free. They used to declare themselves "nuclear-free zones". GE-free zones 
would be a very practical way of showing the tax-paying public that they 
care.

Local members should also be made aware about the GE-free sentiment. Ring, 
fax, email, write to your local member of parliament, state premier and the 
Prime Minister.

GeneEthics have produced a petition calling for a minimum five-year freeze 
on genetic engineering on:

* release into the environment of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) -
- crops, microbes or animals  for research or commercial purposes;

* imports of genetically engineered foods and GEOs;

* patents on living organisms.

The petition sets out strict conditions to be met prior to the lifting of 
the freeze. These include:

* an Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and strong national 
laws on GEOs;

* mandatory labels on all products produced using gene technology;

* a Biosafety Protocol to ensure safe international transport and 
use of GEOs;

* GE-free zones where GEO-free crops can be grown without genetic 
pollution;

* independent research results showing GEOs are harmless to health 
and environment;

* adverse reactions registers where the public can report any 
illness from GEOs;

* a strong, enforceable liability and insurance regime on GE 
products;

* everyone fully informed on GEOs, leading to democratic decisions 
on GEO use.

For copies of the petition or more information on GE contact the GeneEthics 
Network at 340 Gore Street, Fitzroy, 3065;

Ph: (03) 9416 2222;
Fax: (03) 9416 0767; 
email: acfgenet@peg.apc.org
Website: http://www.zero.com.au/agen

* * *
Acknowledgements to Bob Phelps of GeneEthics Network whose writings formed the foundation of this article

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