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The Need to Proceed

Bangkok Post
October 31, 1999
By Phusadee Arunmas And Apisit Buranakanonda

Better get used to them - genetically modified foods are here to stay

The combination of strong laws and capable scientists will help shield the public against the adverse effects of premature bio-engineering technologies, according to an Alabama based Thai researcher. Channapatna Prakash, director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, says that bioengineering technology is inevitable due to its wide-ranging usefulness in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

A strong supporter of the technology, he stresses that consumer and environmental safety are prerequisites for policymakers in shaping a country's stance on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). More importantly, he said, the public sector should set aside a research budget and funds to empower scientists to make objective recommendations to the government. A strong regulatory framework is "necessary but should not be devised as barriers simply to save bureaucrats," he said.

In deciding on GMOs, policymakers have to investigate if the new strains are as safe as ordinary varieties.

Since large corporations merge every day, policymakers need to look at the legal powers of the state to arrest market oligopoly, the scientist said. Furthermore lawmakers need to develop strong product liability laws to protect consumers and bar unsafe or questionable products from the market. In his opinion, conventional breeding, tissue culture or even basic chemical control are among some of the cost-effective solutions for countries that are still uncertain about adopting the technology.

What's natural?

To scientists, GMO is simply a technology. However, it will become a powerful tool in the future. Prakash said that "we should neither be a worshipper nor embrace the technology simply because it is new. On the contrary, we should look at it as a solution to problems. "GMOs are not natural, but neither is agriculture. Crops have been developed for over 50 centuries. If agriculture was natural we would not have enough food to feed humanity. GMOs are simply an extension of current technologies," he said. He said that discussion on GMOs is coloured by sensationalism. "Perception of food safety issues is warped by sensational coverage in the tabloid press and contentious trade issues between Europe and America."

Money talks

A country's policy on genetically modified food depends on its marketing position, according to Prakash. For example Thailand has clarified its aim to export GMO-free products. The private sector has accepted this stance for business reasons.

Gerber, a baby food company and subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis, decided to stop using genetically modified corn and soy bean in its baby foods last August in response to consumer preferences, Prakash noted.

The Japanese Asahi Breweries Ltd will stop using bioengineered corn in its beer by April, 2000.

Yet, Prakash said that such decisions send wrong signals because they could make the public suspect the safety of GM foods. "So far, American consumers have not filed a single complaint against any of the 5,000 GM products that have been on-shelf since 1996."

Impact appraisal

The US is quite liberal about genetically modified food. Nevertheless, its Food and Drug Administration requires the labelling of GMO products when the nutritional content is changed, when an allergen is introduced, or when cooking or storage procedures need to be altered.

In an attempt to consider consumer concerns, the US Agriculture Department recently asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to form a panel to appraise the environmental impact of genetically modified crops. The NAS is a nongovernmental agency created in 1863 by the federal government. It carries out studies on scientific and technological matters at the request of government agencies.

At the farm level, the decision to cultivate GMO crops depends on its perceived value, Prakash said, adding that the state must advise farmers to plant several strands in their fields instead of a monocropping system. Farmers need to set aside a buffer area to plant trap crops for natural pests to live on.

Should GM foods become more popular, food would become much cheaper which would benefit consumers. Research and development costs make GMO seeds expensive, but fair and open competition in the market will affect future pricing, he said.

Currently, bioengineering knowhow is largely concentrated in a handful of companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont, Dekalb, Rhone-Poulenc, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

At the moment, Prakash said, GMO products are relatively basic. "The second and third wave products that will come will have even more impact."