Stop GM Foods: Why we must end this now

Joanna Blythman warns of the catastrophe that scientists could unleash on our food
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The Independent Online
GENETICALLY engineered foods are the biggest threat in history to the safety and integrity of our food chain. Yet there is a good chance you just ate them for breakfast.

Genetically manipulated ingredients are turning up, unlabelled, in everyday items such as bread, cornflakes and margarine, despite every indicator of public opinion showing that we don't want them.

Such products are the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. They represent the initial applications of a new, unpredictable technology which when it goes wrong - and it already has - could have catastrophic, irreversible consequences.

Despite the biotech industry's clumsy attempts to portray genetic manipulations of our foods as natural, unthreatening extensions of natural breeding and "improving" techniques, the truth is that gene technology is being used to create huge, accelerated changes in food that could never occur naturally. This offers big business the prospect of mixing and matching genes to create new, profitable food "constructions", even to the extent of swapping genetic material across species barriers.

But nature is a beautifully organised and complex system. When we start tinkering with that even the cleverest geneticists cannot predict the knock-on effects.

Once altered genes are released into the environment, there is no way of recalling them or predicting what changes they might trigger. New-variant CJD - the human BSE - can theoretically be eradicated in time. When genetic manipulations of our food go wrong, we will need to live with them for ever.

The new gene food revolution is being brought to us by the same profit- driven corporations that gave us pesticides and drugs to prop up the miserable conditions of factory-farm animals. The text remains the same. Only this time it is gene foods that are going to give us better food and save the world from hunger.

We have every right to be cynical. Far from feeding the world, genetic manipulation of the food we eat will simply tie up control of food production - right down to seeds - in their hands. You can forget about organic food, too. Released into the environment, altered genes can end up anywhere.

Gene foods are being foisted on British consumers against our will. A clear majority wants them banned, a call backed by the Conservatives. Yet, only last week, Tony Blair showed how cosy he has become with the biotech industry by dismissing this as based on "prejudice", and preferring to take "best scientific advice" from the same discredited committees and civil servants - wined and dined by the Monsantos of the world - who got it so spectacularly wrong with BSE.

Is this just stupidity? Mr Blair's gene food expert, Jeff Rooker, the Food minister, has already shown himself to be out of his depth. He assures us that gene foods are strictly tested before being released on the market and tells us there are only four foods on the market anyway, so what's the fuss? The truth is that scientists cannot even agree how you can test for safety, because the ramifications of genetic manipulation of foods are so far-reaching, and genetically manipulated ingredients are now in at least 60 per cent of processed foods. Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, says he will get tough and make sure gene foods are all labelled. Come off it. We already know they aren't.

At best, labelling is a token gesture towards informing consumers. Once altered genes are released into the environment, any link in the food chain can be affected.

The Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, who seems to be dictating the Government's gene food policy, has huge commercial interests in the biotech industry as well as being a financial backer of the Labour Party.

We know through leaks that the Department of Health has already asked supermarkets to give it confidential information, gained from loyalty cards, so it can monitor any adverse health effects in shoppers who eat genetically engineered food.

Indeed, it seems desperate to force gene foods down our throats - even to the extent of making government propaganda films in supermarkets.

We are in an extremely frightening situation. Huge risks are being taken with our precious food chain by corporations that will play fast and loose with the environment and public health to line their pockets. Our would-be defenders are in bed with them.

It's down to us to use every consumer trick in the book to call a halt to gene foods now. If we push hard enough, we can make that happen.

Joanna Blythman is a specialist food journalist and author of `The Food We Eat' (Penguin, pounds 6.99)