“Our food, genetically engineered by stealth”

“Our food, genetically engineered by stealth”, was the title of a public talk given by Steffan Browning of The Greens political party.

The presentation given by Mr Browning included some 27 powerpoint slides, some of which he said, came from the documentary film “Genetic Roulette”.

Back in June 2013, Mr Brown had teamed up with Australian farmer Bob Mackley and given a public talk about Genetically Engineered (sometimes called Genetically Modified) foods and other organisms (which can include trees and farm animals). At that time, the hail and sleet had abated to just a bitterly cold wind and heavy rain, and that 2013 meeting had been attended by just a few hardy souls who braved the elements.

But the evening of Monday 31 March 2014 was a mildly warm, dry Autumn evening and the location, at the recently renovated Oxford Terrace Baptist church/hall, was much better attended with about 25 people in the audience (not counting the organisers).

Mr Browning’s presentation went for about an hour and a half and there was a short question time afterwards.

Steffan Browning seems to have the credentials for speaking on issues around GE/GM food plants and organisms. Before he became a Member of Parliament with The Greens political party, he had been an organic farmer for some 18 years, and had had one of the largest certified organic glasshouse operations in New Zealand. He has served on a number of parliamentary committees regarding food safety.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand is the gatekeeper responsible for the safety of food in New Zealand. However going by what Mr Browning said, the gatekeeper seems to only ever open the gate and almost never shuts it. There had been 55 applications (for some 83 lines, as some included more than one item) and they had all been approved.

The crops were mostly Soy-beans, Canola, Lucerne/Alfalfa, Corn, Sugar-beet, Rice, Potato and Cotton. The two main traits concerned were ‘herbicide resistant’ and ‘insecticide producing’. Herbicide resistant is often referred to as ‘Roundup Ready”, or for short, just RR or HR.

In the USA, after many years of not allowing GE foods into the market place, the federal government’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration) changed their decision to allow them under the term “substantially equivalence”. It was later said by an audience member, during the question time at the end, that the term had been coined by a Californian lawyer who had been working for a major seed and chemical company.

It was 1985 when the USA first allowed the patenting of plants and it was 1996 when the patent on Roundup (glyphosate) was about to expire. Roundup is a commonly used herbicide on many farms and market-gardens around the world.

Owning a patent on seeds would enable Monsanto to maintain a revenue stream, as cheaper generic equivalents of Roundup, became available from other companies.

The same powerpoint slide also detailed how a 2002 patent was issued from the European patent office for some non-GE brocolli and tomato varieties.

Not mentioned was a case I heard about earlier, of a 2003 patent allowed in Australia for an extremely rare red flowering version of the Victorian wattle ‘Acacia leprosa’. It is worth noting that Plant Breeder’s Rights were granted even though the applicants had not bred the original plant, they had not genetically engineered or modified it in any way. They had simply stripped the original mother plant of some cuttings and reproduced further plants from those. The Red flowered wattle had just been stumbled across during a walk amongst native bush amongst the more common, yellow flowering form of Acacia leprosa.

There is perhaps a more fundamental point that should be addressed sometime, about whether it’s morally right to have laws that allow people to copyright and lock-up the control of entire lines of plants. However that would be a discussion for another day and wasn’t addressed in Mr Browning’s presentation.

According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, in 8 May 2009 they claimed that there was an “association between GM foods and adverse health effects”.

Four countries are said to grow 83% of current GM crops. The United States of America, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Four types of crops account for 99% of the area of GM crops grown, with Soy and Maize being about 80% and Canola and Cotton being the rest.

Because RR crops tend to have more herbicide applied to them, some contamination carries over, and traces of Glyphosate and Formaldehyde have been found in samples analysed. Mr Browning said this goes against what the public were initially told, (that GE crops would lead to lower use of pesticides and chemicals and that residues would not flow on into the food chain).

When Bt Corn was tested, it was found to contain between 1.13 and 1.7 kg/acre of the Bt toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis), whereas normal corn has only 140 grams/acre. (I must say I am slightly worried about those figures as “kg/acre” is a mixture of both SI Metric and Imperial units. It is possible that somewhere along the line, some measurements have been converted to make them easier for the public to understand. People may wish to research this further themselves and check those figures).

In the last 16 years there has been an increase of 238 million kg in pesticides used. Herbicide use is greater, by some two and a half times, on herbicide tolerant crops.

In Denmark, one farmer claimed that 30% of his sows died with diarrhea when fed a diet of GE Soy, but the problem was resolved when he changed to non-GE feeds. Live piglet births increased after GE feed was withdrawn.

In a more scientifically rigourous study by Judy Carmen in Australia, feeding pigs on GE feeds was found to produce many more cases of stomach inflamation, than with conventional feed.

A study by ‘Seralini’ in 2012, showed rats would develop tumours when fed a diet if GE foods.

In 1997, Europe increased the allowable herbicide residue in human food by a factor of 200 times, from 0.1 mg/kg to 20 mg/kg. This occurred around the same time the Roundup Ready Soy was being commercialised in Europe.

In a 2011 study in the USA, 93 % of pregnant women and 80% of newborns were found to have detectable levels of Bt toxin in their blood. 100% of the women tested had 3-MPAA detected. (I do not recall hearing any explanation of what 3-MPAA is).

Mr Browning summarised by saying that even in NZ foods, upto 70% of processed foods may contain some GE starches, sugars, soy lecithin and oils. He said processing aids and additives are exempt from labelling requirements.

It was pointed out that FSANZ gives the Australians 9 votes to New Zealand’s one vote, and that trade deals like the currently being negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership may have effects such as on GE food labelling requirements.

After the question time ended, a light supper was available and many of the audience stayed to talk further amongst themselves and with Mr Browning.

Thanks go to Mr Steffan Browning MP for his presentation, to the Oxford Baptist Church for providing the venue and to the various volunteers who helped out for the evening.

It is up to the audience on the night, and for people at large, to make up their own minds on whether they want New Zealand to continue down the path of GE/GM genetically engineered or modified organisms…. plants, animals and trees, all of which are rigidly patented and subject to various provisions of their mostly foreign owners.

Coverage of Steffan Browning’s earlier talk along with Australian farmer Bob Mackley can be found as a series of short video clips numbered 360 to 370. Here is a link to the first of those segments.

A public rally concerning GE that occured earlier is covered in videos 348 to 357. Here is a link to the first of those segments.

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