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SPECIAL REPORT: BIOTECH FOOD: Trouble in the field; Ottawa approves genetically engineered food without doing independent,

long-term testing Series: BIOTECH FOOD; [Final Edition] Sarah Sacheli Star County Reporter With files from Sharon Hill. The Windsor Star. Windsor, Ont.: Dec 9, 2000. pg. G.1.FRO Abstract (Summary) Current testing on genetically engineered food is so unreliable it has turned Canadian consumers into unwitting lab rats, says an expert on the regulations under which GE foods are approved. Some GE crops contain genes that make them resistant to herbicides. Critics fear that trait could get into the environment through such means as cross-pollination. That could create plants that can't be killed by herbicides -- superweeds -- that could overtake native species. In an area like Windsor and Essex County, the Carolinian ecosystem could be at risk. CAPE questions genetic engineering's effect on human health. Could Bt potatoes, genetically engineered to be toxic to pests, make humans resistant to antibiotics? Antibiotic-resistant genes are added in the genetic engineering to allow the potato to accept the bacteria gene that is lethal to the Colorado potato beetle. Jump to indexing (document details) Full Text (1322 words) Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Dec 9, 2000

Current testing on genetically engineered food is so unreliable it has turned Canadian consumers into unwitting lab rats, says an expert on the regulations under which GE foods are approved. "The testing done at the present time is so weak to be laughable if it weren't such a serious issue," says Dr. Michele Brill- Edwards, a former high-ranking Health Canada employee who is an expert on the Food and Drug Act. "The system as it stands is not a system citizens can rely on." Ottawa ushers genetically engineered food into the Canadian marketplace without doing any independent, long-term testing on it. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency -- the federal bureaus responsible for reviewing GE foods and crops -- base decisions on research submitted by the companies seeking approval. The CFIA does oversee field trials, but critics say they aren't conducted over successive growing seasons to study any long-term effects on the environment. Kingsville farmer Jim Ludwig worries his organic crops will be contaminated from nearby fields of genetically engineered corn or soybeans.

"I can't keep genes out of the farm," he says. He worries his crop won't be considered organic in the future. Some GE crops contain genes that make them resistant to herbicides. Critics fear that trait could get into the environment through such means as cross-pollination. That could create plants that can't be killed by herbicides -- superweeds -- that could overtake native species. In an area like Windsor and Essex County, the Carolinian ecosystem could be at risk. Images of Titanic "With these very dramatic and widespread changes, our world becomes the Titanic and we all have a ticket on it," says Brill- Edwards. Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief, defends GE crops and their approval process. "Canada has one of the best regulatory systems in the world for food safety." Vanclief insists GE foods are as safe as prescription medicine. Brill-Edwards scoffs at that comparison. From 1988 to 1992, she was the senior physician in charge of pharmaceutical approvals with Health Canada. In 1996, she resigned, charging drug companies had influenced approvals and some were being rushed. "It is not the rigorous process the government would have us believe," she says. "It's basically a masquerade." The physician points to two harrowing examples. Cisapride, a drug used to counter stomach upset, has been linked to 10 deaths in Canada. The drug was pulled from the market Aug. 7. And the Krever inquiry into how people got infected with Hepatitis C through blood transfusions showed a serious regulatory failure on Health Canada's part, Brill-Edwards notes. In the future, we could come to realize GE foods were a big mistake, too, she says. The union representing about 5,000 government scientists says it hasn't heard complaints from members who approve GE foods, but "pressure to approve...seems to be a widespread problem," at Health Canada, says Francine Pressault, spokeswoman for The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. "There is pressure from drug companies," she says. Those companies are the same ones developing genetically engineered food. Lorne Hepworth, former Saskat-chewan agriculture minister, is the spokesman for corporations like Monsanto and Dupont. "There are no gaps on the regulatory side," says the president of the Crop Protection Institute of Canada. "The track record of safety in Canada is that we have safe and wholesome food."

The biotech industry is partly responsible, says Hepworth. "We work with the government to make sure the rules are good, science- based regulations that will have the trust and confidence of consumers." Getting an approval isn't easy, adds Karen McIntyre, associate director of the Health Canada office that develops policy on biotechnology. "It takes, on average, eight years to generate the data," says McIntyre, adding company research costs millions of dollars to compile. "No, we don't do the actual testing on anything...but we set the standards and the criteria." The system is based on science, she said, not some perceived threat from the biotech companies. Health Canada uses a criteria called "substantial equivalence" to assess GE foods. It compares them to conventional foods in terms of nutrition, allergenicity, toxicity and the process used to develop them. Can't be sure But Bert Christie, a former Agriculture Canada scientist, says substantial equivalence doesn't tell the whole story. "You put a foreign gene in an organism and there can be all sorts of consequence. To come along and say 'my tomato is the same as yours except it has a gene that makes it more hearty.' You can't be sure of that." He wants more independent research. "We've modified these foods. There could be a new protein introduced that doesn't kill us, but that could have long-term effects. He cites the possibility of consumers developing new diseases and allergies. "I'm not saying they are unsafe, but I'd like to have some evidence they are safe," he says Alan McHughen, author of Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, has seen Canada's review process from the inside by having a GE linseed approved. He says the process is thorough. However, he doesn't dismiss the possibility of genetically modified organisms creating superweeds or introducing allergic properties to foods. Those areas should be the focus of research, says McHughen, scientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Andrew Hubberstey, a molecular biologist at the University of Windsor, eats GE food without any hand-wringing. "I have two young kids who do. I know I've eaten transgenic canola, corn and stuff everyday. Believe me, I don't lose any sleep over it." But Hubberstey, who teaches a fourth-year course in biotechnology, says "there is a place for independent testing," if only to assuage the concerns of critics. But he wonders, "Who's going to pay for it?"

Indeed, cost is part of the argument for company-generated research. "As a taxpayer, that's the way it should be. I don't want taxpayer dollars going to fund what is essentially a commercial product," says Doug Powell, a geneticist at the University of Guelph. He gets research grants from industry but says it doesn't colour his belief that the food is safe. Ottawa's bureaucracy needs to be more "transparent" to convince people. "They're not human health risk problems. They are communication problems." But the 100 members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment don't buy that. CAPE demands the government suspend all environmental releases of genetically modified crops and products and rescind all current patents on them until a comprehensive public inquiry determines them to be safe. "It's an insanity," says Dr. Tom Barnard, a Leamington family physician and co-author of CAPE's statement on genetically manipulated organisms. "Why are we rushing this stuff into the marketplace?" CAPE's position is supported by groups like the British Medical Association. Fighting the beetle CAPE questions genetic engineering's effect on human health. Could Bt potatoes, genetically engineered to be toxic to pests, make humans resistant to antibiotics? Antibiotic-resistant genes are added in the genetic engineering to allow the potato to accept the bacteria gene that is lethal to the Colorado potato beetle. Similarly, could we become resistant to antibiotics from eating beef? Cows eat Bt corn, which contains bacteria lethal to the European corn borer. CAPE notes that in the 1980s, U.S. doctors began seeing patients with a new disease traced to a popular health food supplement created by using genetically modified bacteria. While deemed biologically equivalent to the amino acid tryptophan already on the market, the new amino acid turned out to be toxic and was recalled. Consumers are being used as guinea pigs, says Lucy Sharratt, co- ordinator of the Sierra Club's Safe Food, Sustainable Agriculture campaign. "It's irresponsible to put products on the market and use people as experiments and say, 'Look, no one's gotten sick yet. They're safe.' " [Illustration] Corn ; Monarch Butterfly ; Tom Barnard with a Carolinian tree. Star photo: Tim Fraser ; Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards ; U of W professor Andrew Hubberstey ;

Indexing (document details) Author(s): Sarah Sacheli Star County Reporter With files from Sharon Hill Document types: Special Report; Series Section: Insight Publication title: The Windsor Star. Windsor, Ont.: Dec 9, 2000. pg. G.1.FRO Source type: Newspaper ProQuest document ID: 219053461 Text Word Count 1322 Document URL: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=219053461&sid=5&Fmt=3&clientId=12144&RQT=309& VName=PQD