Gene alteringirks Europeans

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    By RALF GRUENKE

    European environmentalists and consumers have joined in their protest against the import of genetically engineered soy beans from the United States.

    The German Ecological Democratic Party, OeDP, is one of the organizations at the head of the European activists’ efforts to stop the import of Roundup Ready Soybeans from the U.S. chemical company Monsanto.

    “Soy beans must stay clean. Soy beans or processed soy beans are contained in 60 percent of our food,” said Eric Michelet from the national OeDP office in Wuerzburg.

    Michelet said possible side effects of genetically altered food have not been sufficiently researched.

    After the European Commission formally approved the import, storage and processing of genetically modified soy beans in the European Union in April 1996, foods containing these soy beans, such as bread, pasta, ice cream and meat products, became available in European stores.

    The new soy beans, developed by Monsanto, were to be resistant to the company’s own weedkiller, Roundup.

    “We have applied one additional protein on the plants. It’s just to give growers an additional option,” said Karen Marshall, Monsanto’s manager of public affairs.

    Roundup is a non-selective herbicide and would be effective against all green vegetation, which made the genetic alteration of the soy beans necessary, Marshall said.

    She said Monsanto’s soy beans are not essentially different from naturally grown plants. “They function like them, look like them and taste like them.”

    There are numerous indications that genetic engineering causes dangers to both the environment and human health, said Joachim Graf, OeDP national media spokesperson Joachim Graf.

    “There’s just as much proof as there is for the CFCs damaging the ozone layer,” Graf said. “If you don’t want to accept it, though, the best evidence won’t make you change.”

    Like other consumer organizations, the OeDP warns that genes taken from a variety of insects, bacteria and animals to improve the genetic code of food plants have multiple functions. According to Michelet, a gene that is selected for one function may possess others that are deleterious.

    Marshall said the health issues raised by the OeDP and other European activists are not science-based.

    “It is unfortunate that consumers are given inaccurate information,” she said.

    Marshall is surprised by Europeans’ concern about negative health effects of genetically altered soy beans.

    “It’s interesting that they say that. They’ve been reviewed in Denmark and the United Kingdom, which are both European countries,” Marshall said.

    Scientists working in the field are united in their opinion that the Roundup Ready soy beans are not dangerous to human health, Marshall said.

    Graf said scientists are not really in control of the matter. “These aspects are so complex, the books about these issues still need to be written.”

    The OeDP has started a national campaign against the Monsanto soy beans. The party offers a protest web site on the Internet and has encouraged consumers to forward protest postcards to the German federal secretaries of agriculture and environment, Jochen Borchert and Angela Merkel.

    “We’ve had the biggest response we’ve ever had with any of our Internet campaigns,” Michelet said. “It’s been tremendous.”

    Michelet said he is not aware of the OeDP contacting Monsanto directly. He said his organization’s protest is aimed at German and European politicians.

    “I will not argue that there is a lot of noise in Europe,” Marshall said.

    She believes the consumers’ protests will calm down once the idea of genetic modification of food becomes more commonplace in people’s minds.

    While the German government has not reacted to the OeDP protest, environmentalists and consumer rights activists have been more successful in other European countries.

    The Dutch government has been the first to announce in December that certain food products made from genetically altered soy beans must be labeled as such in the Netherlands. The label will read “containing soya protein manufactured on the basis of modern biotechnology.”

    Michelet said the OeDP also demands a clear labeling of all genetically engineered food sold in Germany.

    According to Michelet, surveys have shown 94 percent of German consumers would prefer genetically modified food to be labeled as such. Seventy-seven percent would not consume genetically altered food at all if given a choice, Michelet said.

    Marshall doubts the accuracy of the survey quoted by the OeDP. “It was sponsored by Greenpeace. Of course it’s biased. As more products enter the European market, you will see that these numbers will change.”

    Genetically modified food should not be especially labeled, Marshall said. “There’s no reason for it. These are just foods; they should be labeled just the same, unless you have changed the products or if there is a health issue.”

    In January, activists protested against the use of genetically altered soy beans in front of multi-national food companies in nine European countries.

    Graf said the OeDP will continue its protest until ultimately the import of all genetically modified U.S. food products will be banned.

    The OeDP united about 7,000 German environmentalist and consumer activists. The conservative party split from the German Greens in 1982 because of the Greens’ left-wing tendencies.

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