Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.03.2000

What bothers consumers about gene technology?

Supermarket

Consumer resistance to foods containing genetically modified products has been growing worldwide. Rightly or wrongly, there is considerable mistrust and misinformation circling about this issue. Ground Cover correspondent Bernie Reppel asked well-known nutritionist Rosemary Stanton to summarise the arguments against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) produced by gene technology.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton believes competition between the giant corporations to be first into the field and into the perceived profits is behind a lot of the community mistrust of genetic modification. The general public, she says, doesn't like the idea of having GMOs thrust upon them for corporate gain, and is very sceptical of claims that the technology has benefits for consumers or farmers. Anywhere, at home or overseas.

More personally, as a professional nutritionist, Dr Stanton believes nowhere near enough testing has been carried out on genetically modified food. "I am not saying there should be a ban on GMOs, but I do believe there should be more of the right sort of testing before things are put on the market commercially," she says.

"It's true that there has been quite a lot of testing already, but it has focused on identifying whether the protein, fats, minerals and vitamins in modified foods are substantially the same as in unmodified food.

Dr Stanton says there is a lack of proof of claims of ben-efits for farmers and consumers alike flowing from GMOs. She suggests that, although Bt cotton was held out as the GMO with most promise to date, Australian growers haven't seen the promised reductions in the cost of pest control.

"Again you get the feeling that Bt cotton was introduced in too much of a hurry, for commercial reasons," she says.

"The whole GMO thing has been too rushed, because each company wants to sign up farmers and dominate j the sector before its competitors.

"GMO advocates like to put forward the parallel of their valuable uses in medicine, but that is an area where the community can see benefit to people, and laud the sci- j entists involved for trying to help humanity.

"In the case of GMO foods, they see the scientists as j puppets of big business, and they are resistant to the line: 'Trust me, I'm a scientist'.

"Science doesn't always get things right, and there is always going to be the odd catastrophe, although people in the GMO debate won't admit it.

"Scientists have told the community lots of things were safe when they weren't, like DDT, which was introduced for many good, valid reasons but which has now contaminated the whole globe.

"They told us pesticides were safe, but now they say we need to move to GMO food production because we need to use less pesticide."

Dr Stanton says another image problem for the pro-GMO forces is the tendency in the debate to lump togeth-er all aspects of the technology, when there are some uses of it which should create no adverse community percep-tions.

She herself has a problem with the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in a technology that is suggested to be one of the soft areas of GMOs. She says that, while GMO proponents are saying that the amounts of antibi-otics used in molecular marker technology are minute compared to what is used in the poultry industry, there is no data available to assure the public that there is no threat to health.

Mostly, consumers don't give two hoots about the tech-nology used to produce food but, in the case of GMOs, they see something being forced on them from above. They have also noted the results of overuse of earlier, fashionable technologies like fertilisers and irrigation in the current state of the Murray River.

Although a general advocate of the value of organic food, Dr Stanton says she is realistic about organic pro-duction, accepting that it isn't viable across the entire food profile.

"I am pro-IPM (integrated pest management) and, looking at the current investment in organic food production which is pretty well nothing, would argue there would be more to gain from it if there was more research," she says.

"In the end GMO foods may come out with flying colours, and that would be fine, but there has to be a lot more testing. Until that happens markets will continue to close to them.

"Many parts of Asia are reluctant to use them, there is a three-year moratorium on them in Europe and even the United States, where people are corning to understand what they are being fed without being told, is seeing the beginnings of a huge consumer revolt.

"There may be more benefit for Australian farmers in staying away from GMOs and capitalising on markets that want GMO-free food."